Libertarianism at Core of Drug Legalization


After 10 years of drug legalization, Portugal has witnessed a significant drop in addicts and drug abuse, the number of infections from intravenous needles, and drug-related crimes. Doctors and health experts in Portugal have recently praised the decision to decriminalize drugs. This should come as no surprise to those that understand the philosophy of liberty, its implications, and how Portugal’s example can be used to expand liberty in other aspects of society. By following a policy mix of decriminalization, harm reduction, and treatment, Portugal has created an atmosphere where “the vast majority of problematic users are today supported by a system that does not treat them as delinquents but as sick people.”

It is easy to cite examples from the laundry list of problems that accompany the prohibition of drugs. The “war on drugs” has cost American taxpayers $2.5 trillion. The U.S. now has the highest incarceration rate in the world even though violent crime has dropped by 25% in the last 20 years. Prohibition drives up the price of drugs above market rates, leaving violent cartels as the only suppliers in the same way that alcohol prohibition saw the creation of organized crime. Despite near-universal criminalization, drug use has skyrocketed. Many current and retired law enforcement officers — who have witnessed the drug war’s insanity first-hand — are calling for prohibition’s repeal. After all, if they can’t keep drugs out of prison, fighting the war on drugs is an exercise in futility.

But all it takes to understand the follies of drug prohibition is a knowledge of the principles of libertarian ethics: individual liberty, self-ownership, and the non-aggression principle.

Since actions are the results of conscious choices, individuals have ownership rights in their person and that they — and they alone — have the sole liberty to decide how to use their body. Applied practically, self-ownership manifests itself in the non-aggression principle (NAP) and the free market; that no individual,  or group of individuals, may forcibly restrict liberty unless they themselves violate the NAP by aggressing against others (like theft, rape, murder, fraud, pollution). The NAP is universal, treats everyone as equals before the law, and does not excuse this rule even if you call yourself the IRS, the U.S. Marines, or a corporation.

A simple application of this philosophy says that drugs should be decriminalized not due to the horrendous legacies of drug prohibition or to Portugal’s success, but because you own your body and have the right to put whatever you want into it. Not that you should consume hard drugs (or smoke, consume alcohol, drink soda, eat fatty foods), but no one may legally deny you that right. Without choice, there can be no virtue. To tell someone what they can or can’t consume is like telling them what they can or can’t read.

That is why it did not surprise me that the marketplace's solution to drug abuse, using treatment and education, produces better results than coercive methods like prisons and drug wars. Proponents of drug legalization believe that the number of people needing drug addiction help would decrease should their goal become a reality.

And it is not just drug prohibition that libertarian ethics and the NAP apply to. Liberty can not be cherry-picked. Individuals acting peacefully in the marketplace not only creates wealth and prosperity, but provides effective regulation, order, security, and justice as well. Individual liberty values “the little platoons” of the private order — commerce, the family, the church, voluntary and mutual-aid organizations, charities — and opposes the coercive structuring of society manifested in wars, corporatism, centralization, and the transfer of wealth from the poor to politically connected industries.

In this Left vs. Right climate surrounding a global empire and massive welfare state, a voluntary society seems highly unlikely, impractical, idealistic, or all of the above. But all political structures and societies rely on ideas, whether democratic or authoritarian. And the idea that some individuals, calling themselves “the state,” may legally commit aggression against others can not last.

Our generation is waking up to the illusion that politicians can solve our problems and moving past labels like “liberal” and “conservative.” I am confident that the ideas behind a free society — liberty, self-ownership, and the NAP — will only grow because as Victor Hugo famously said, “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Photo CreditTorben Bjørn Hansen