Drugs II
James Q. Wilson: “Against the Legalization of
Wilson’s Project
• Wilson’s arguments against the legalization of drugs fall into
two categories:
- Consequentialist: There is a strong likelihood of greater
social harm resulting from the legalization of drugs than from
their prohibition.
- Appeal to Humanity: Mind-altering drugs “destroy the user’s
humanity” and so are immoral.
• Note: Wilson is concerned with the ethics of ‘hard’ drugs, such
as heroin and cocaine, and not marijuana (though at least
some elements of his argument seem extendable to marijuana
and other ‘soft’ drugs).
Recall Boaz’s Argument
• The government has no right to tell people not to use drugs.
• The prohibition of drug use imposes costs on society that far
outweigh the benefits.
• As such, Boaz calls for a repeal of legislation that makes drugs
illegal, so as to make people responsible for their own
• (A similar argument cited by Wilton Friedman is cited by
Reliving the Past
Let us assume a case in which heroin had been legalized in 1972.
What would have followed?
• The price of heroin would have dropped
drastically (Wilson says by 95%).
• Now being sold in pharmacies, its quality
would have been assured, as would
needles needed for its use.
• There would have been no more financial
or medical reason to avoid heroin use.
• Although likely still controlled (like alcohol and
tobacco), children would have eventually gained
access to it: “[Y]oung people have a way of penetrating
markets theoretically reserved for adults.” (146)
• Heroin use would have grown exponentially.
Back to the Future
The public focus on heroin in the 1970s gave way to focus on
cocaine on the 1980s.
• This was especially true for its most
potent form: crack.
• And just as there were movements to
legalize heroin in the ’70s, there were
movements to legalize cocaine in the
’80s and ’90s.
• The problems foreseeable with legalized
cocaine are even more pronounced than
those with legalized heroin.
- Crack is worse than heroin by almost any measure.” (146)
Back to the Future (cont’d)
• Depending on administration,
high can peak immediately or up
to five minutes after use.
• High characterized by relief of
extreme pain, euphoria, and
• Negative side-effects can include
disorientation and delirium,
nausea and constipation,
spasticity, addiction, and death in
high doses.
• Withdrawal sets in between 6
and 24 hours of discontinuation
of sustained use.
• High lasting up to 15 minutes, but
peaking almost immediately on
• High characterized by intense
• Negative side-effects can include
cardiovascular damage,
permanent brain damage, and
• Administration methods can also
result in damage to lungs or veins,
weeping wounds, and dead tissue.
• Each successive dose leads to
more and more intense highs, and
as such almost immediate
Back to the Future (cont’d)
• “Those people who progress to ‘bingeing’ on cocaine become
devoted to the drug and its effects to the exclusion of almost all
other considerations—job, family, children, sleep, food, even
sex…” (147)
• Not only are women more likely to use crack than heroin, if
they are pregnant, the effects on their children can be
- “Some crack babies have for all practical purposes suffered
a disabling stroke while still in the womb.” (147)
- Estimates of about 30,000-50,000 “crack babies” born every
year (about 7,000 in NYC alone).
- And, of course, the women having such babies are usually
not in any position to take care of them, and are usually
unwilling to seek treatment.
Back to the Future (cont’d)
• “The notion that abusing drugs such as cocaine is a ‘victimless
crime’ is not only absurd but dangerous.” (147)
- Our concern is with society itself: “Society is not and could
never be a collection of autonomous individuals. We all have
a stake in ensuring that each of us displays a minimal level
of dignity, responsibility, and empathy.” (147)
- We should expect certain standards to be met.
The Benefits of Illegality
Treatment: Although there are some addicts who genuinely desire
treatment for their addictions, the majority only desire short-term
help after a bad crash.
• Even many of those who enroll in programs seeking help are
not up to the commitment.
Compulsion: Research provides evidence that the longer one
stays in a treatment program, the better the chances of reduction
in drug dependency. When addicts enter into such programs
under legal compulsion, drop-out rates are much lower.
• It is not clear how compulsion could be achieved in a society in
which such drugs are completely legal.
The Benefits of Illegality (cont’d)
Education: Although drug-education programs in schools are new,
it is difficult to see how such programs could effectively dissuade
children from doing something perfectly legal.
• Although we can, in part, dissuade tobacco and alcohol use
through school programs, the long-term physical side-effects of
drugs like crack are neither as well researched nor apparently
as extensive.
• “[W]hat do we say about crack? It is pleasurable, but devoting
yourself to so much pleasure is not a good idea (though
perfectly legal)? […] Everyone is doing cocaine, but you should
not?” (148)
The Benefits of Illegality (cont’d)
• Unlike tobacco use, dependency on certain mind-altering drugs
is a moral issue.
- Cocaine debases its users’ humanity: “Tobacco shortens
one’s life, cocaine debases it.”
- At a best guess, Wilson’s idea seems to be that cocaine
(and similar such drugs) debases users’ humanity by
making them effectively incapable of not using the drug. As
such, it limits its users autonomy.
The Benefits of Illegality (cont’d)
• Formally-speaking, Wilson seems to be pointing at an
argument along the lines of the following:
(P1) It is wrong to debase humanity.
(P2) If it is wrong to debase humanity, then it is wrong to
increase the chances that humanity will be debased.
(P3) Cocaine use debases humanity (by negating the user’s
autonomy, perhaps).
(P4) Legalizing cocaine will increase the chances that
humanity will be debased (because it will lead to
greater use).
(C) Therefore, it is wrong to legalize cocaine.
The Alcohol Problem
Proponents of drug legalization tend to compare the situation with
that of alcohol:
• Alcohol, like heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, is a drug, and
consumed to excess leads to harmful consequences: “auto
accidents, barroom fights, bedroom shootings.”
- And to some it is addictive (though certainly less addictive
than crack or heroin, to the degree that we can measure
such things).
• An advocate of legalization might concede that legalizing such
hard drugs will have harms equivalent to those arising from
alcohol use.
- But, the advocate might add, as with alcohol, at least the
problem would be out in the open where it can be treated.
• Of course, we are having only limited success with alcoholism.
The Alcohol Problem (cont’d)
- That heroin and cocaine addition is usually much more
pronounced than alcoholism makes the prospect of ‘curing’
it that much more daunting.
- Moreover, standard addiction therapy—living in drug-free
therapeutic communities—requires great personal
commitment, something in short supply among those most
at risk for addiction (the young, the disadvantaged).
• Suppose we had today only a half-million alcohol abusers (as
we do hard drug abusers) rather than 15 million.
- Knowing what we do about alcoholism and its
consequences, would we make liquor legal in such a case?
• “The government cannot legislate away the addictive
tendencies in all of us, nor can it remove completely even the
most dangerous addictive substances. But it can cope with
harms when the harms are still manageable.” (149)
If I Am Wrong…
• “If I am wrong” about the consequences of legalizing drugs, but
they remain illegal, the cost will be primarily monetary: we will
certainly incur heavy costs of law enforcement and “some forms
of criminality”.
• “If I am right” but drugs are legalized, millions of people and
thousands of neighborhoods will suffer the consequences.