HARD Summer: autonomy within a prohibitive legal system

I want to elaborate on an earlier post of mine, that received some backlash on Reddit. I said “it is [not] an altogether correct judgment to blame drug consumers for their deaths.” I stated that I don’t believe drug users are entirely to blame for the occasionally-lethal consequences of their willful intoxication; a point I didn’t elaborate on sufficiently, and something that, at first glance, seems wholly incorrect or contrary to many principles espoused on this site. Not so. Illegal drugs (and to an extent, legalized drugs, and to a small extent, anything illegal) face a special status in the realm of human action.

Imagine if I, an undergrad who studies law and philosophy, took on a business venture. I haven’t studied finance or business. Not only have I avoided all theory, but I have no real-world knowledge about the stock market or fluctuating national trends. If I go out on a limb, and buy shares in a company doomed to fail, at that precise moment I exercise my will, make a poor judgment and the inevitable consequences fall on my own shoulders. The responsibility is on me, the same as it would if I were highly educated on the subject and took a promising gamble. Why? Clearly, because I could have easily educated myself – the information, and the means to obtain it, is out there.

Drugs, such as methamphetamine, are different. Legal authorities have specifically prevented me from obtaining information, which would have been collected and condensed naturally, that is requisite for forming a knowledgeable, and thereby autonomous, judgment. In the same way that a child cannot be blamed for removing a firearm from its safe and mistakenly pulling the trigger, I cannot be entirely blamed for making decisions the consequences for which I had an incomplete understanding. It’s part of the reason the crime of homicide is nowhere in law so general: it is divided into murder, manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary, and so on, based on degrees of competence. Now, in the case of a hard drug, I did go of my own accord into the black market to purchase the substance. To some degree, no matter what, I was aware of the risks attached to it. Regardless, the government has, through its force, removed sources of information which would be central to my evaluative performance: scientists cannot perform tests because of enforced ethical standards or threatened jail time for proximity to a drug; there is a lack in direct testimony from acquaintances because the ability to acquire the drug has been drastically altered (in some circumstances, removed; in others, just made more seedy); in addition, police officers often do not know how to handle someone on certain drugs (even when they are required to), they know only how to make the arrest: occasionally life-threatening situations are stalled medical care. State paternalism actually has an infantilizing effect, which shifts some of the responsibility from my hands into those of my helicopter caregiver.

This disruption of responsibility does not imply the government now has the right to make my decisions for me: making decisions for me is what led to the disruption, not any innate immaturity on my part or the part of any user. Disruption cannot justify itself. Instead of knowing why methamphetamine is dangerous for so and so reasons, what I really know and understand, is that the market I can purchase it in is dangerous. Genuine knowledge, wisdom about a substance and its chemical make-up, is less commonplace than wisdom about the dangers of obtaining it: knowledge for which its existence is utterly contingent on an extensive state apparatus.

So, authorities that pass laws criminalizing drug use directly make the market more dangerous (by creating cartels, etc.), and indirectly prevent consumers from discovering information appropriate to making an informed (and thereby blameworthy) decision. The weight of many acute drug overdoses rests on the heads of lawmakers, and in every future drug experimentation the government plays an inhibitory role in the autonomy of the experimenter.

Politically-minded people who don’t want the government (or other people) making decisions for them – whether that’s conservatives hoping to direct their income how they see fit, or liberals fighting for marriage equality – usually employ the argument that people can be responsible for themselves. What I think is obvious, is that when government attempts to prohibit any substance, they impact the ability to even potentially be responsible when making decisions about the substance, by coercively limiting the information that would naturally develop.