To the editor:

In Beth Dyer’s March 22 letter, from a self-described “recovery coach,” she offered a civil and constructive response to my March 13 column, “Government without borders.”

My column was prompted by former Rep. Karen Umberger’s failure to articulate a principled basis for urging that we continue to criminalize marijuana use. In this, I cited the decent and hard-working Ms. Umberger as representative of too many well-intended people, Democrat and Republican, who advocate government interference with private activity, without acknowledging that in a society in which personal freedom is a paramount value, there must be a hard border between the domain reserved to individual action, no matter how stupid or self-destructive others think that action, and those individual activities warranting interference by others, through “government.”

Dyer did us a service by identifying where that border should be drawn: as she puts it, “when public safety is at risk.” I agree with her unreservedly: When the individual’s choice — whether to use drugs, or to do anything else — presents a palpable threat to the safety of others, government’s coercive intervention is warranted. Indeed, this is the purpose for which we establish government, as the Declaration of Independence states. Or as Thomas Jefferson put it, “rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

Dyer particularizes public safety risks associated with drug abuse in “child neglect and abuse. Spousal abuse. Operating under the influence. Vehicular manslaughter. Assaults. Robbery. Murder.” 

All true. All are serious crimes, bearing serious sanctions — regardless what triggers the crime. Unfortunately, Dyer fails to see the implication of the need to focus on the actions that deprive others of their rights, and not on the cause, whether it’s drugs, alcohol or merely human depravity.

We should have learned our lesson with alcohol, after our experience with one of America’s greatest social disasters, Prohibition, the arguments for which a century ago were exactly like those Dyer (and Umberger) make today. Which is why today we punish the specific crime, and no longer indulge the folly of trying to eliminate the drug — alcohol. We punish drunk driving, not drinking. 

We criminalize manslaughter, not consumption of the alcohol that may have preceded the violent outburst. Even extreme, sustained alcohol consumption, which renders the individual unproductive and may well destroy him or her, isn’t a crime, and shouldn’t be, since self-destructive behavior, however regrettable, is an individual right that a free society will defend, even as it deplores it.

After our experience with Prohibition, it’s amazing that Dyer, or anyone else, can claim that our drug laws make us safer, since they’re driving the same pathologies as those fostered by alcohol prohibition: violent crime; otherwise law-abiding citizens turned into criminals; ever more potent illicit substances; a massive waste of resources.

It’s regrettable that neither Dyer, Umberger nor the many others sharing their views, seem aware of the abundant evidence supporting harm-reduction policies, starting with the decriminalization of drugs. Portugal, for example, now has a 20-year record confirming the benefits of decriminalizing all drugs, from marijuana to heroin. 

As our experience with Prohibition should have taught us: Recognizing and zealously defending the boundary between the personal and the public, between the rights of the individual and the rights of others, doesn’t just protect the interests of the individual; it protects all of us. 

It’s long past time to recognize that we protect “public safety” by recognizing that private folly is a private matter.

Maynard Thomson


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