Take No Prisoners

Solving the Drug Problem: Private, Public and Business Usage.

In the first post in this series, I discussed the essence of the drug problem, and determined that the real problem is a conflict between:

  • The right to choose how to live one’s own life.
  • The responsibility not to cause harm to others.
  • The unfortunate reality that use of and addiction to various drugs causes harm to people besides the user or addict.
  • In the second post, I discussed five existing approaches to the drug problem, and found them all lacking, in that each one failed to address at least one component of the problem.

    In this piece, I begin explicating a complex systemic approach to addressing the drug problem in western society. This is too long for one entry, so I’ll start with my assumptions and then discuss a key aspect of my drug framework: public vs private vs business use of drugs.


    The following assumptions guide my formulation. If you disagree with these assumptions, you probably won’t like my approach. If that is the case, I encourage you to make your own assumptions and write your own approach, and then we’ll talk.

  • The drug problem is a conflict among the three elements described above.
  • The individual should be allowed to do as s/he likes as long as his or her actions do not harm others.
  • People do not have the right not to be offended (i.e. “that offends me” is not harm).*
  • If there is no scientific evidence on an issue, we must assume that we are ignorant on that issue.
  • Where scientific evidence is not conclusive, we make decisions based on the balance of evidence (i.e. we do not reject evidence just because it is imperfect because all evidence is imperfect).
  • A drug “is any substance that alters normal bodily function.” This includes caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, opiates, amphetamines, etc.
  • *The whole idea of laws based on what offends people, such as laws against public nudity, is absurd because different things offend different people and the idea of offensive behavior is contrary to freedom of expression and often common sense, and has historically been used to persecute women, children, minorities and other cultures.

    Drugs vs. Uses of Drugs

    It is pretty easy to imagine a situation in which just about any drug could be useful and sensible to use. Doctors use morphine to dull pain, terminally-ill cancer patients use cannabis to relieve pain, the mentally-ill take anti-psychotics, etc. If a painful death were imminent, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be allowed to shoot up on heroin if it would make the passing less traumatic.

    Based on the existence of such situations criminalizing possession of particular substances does not make sense.

    However, some uses of some drugs cause serious irreparable harm to people other than the drug user, and are morally indefensible. For example, drinking alcohol while pregnant causes fetal alcohol syndrome. Since scientists have not been able to determine the minimum level of alcohol that can cause FAS, the safe estimate is currently zero. Thus women should not be permitted to consume alcohol while pregnant.

    Based on this example, prohibiting certain uses of certain drugs, in particular circumstances, does make sense.

    Therefore, in the system I propose, there is no such thing as an illegal drug, only illegal uses of drugs. A major question, then, is what drug uses should be prohibited? I will proceed by working form a situation in which everything is legal, and enumerating the practices that must be prohibited in the proposed drug framework. This piece deals with the first set of prohibitions, based on where a drug is used.

    Public Usage

    Some uses of drugs harm people around the user while others do not. For instance, drinking coffee while seated at a table in a cafe has no adverse effect on the people at adjacent tables, but smoking a cigarette does. Since everyone has a responsibility not to harm other people, drug uses that harm nearby people should be illegal in public places. This includes all public buildings and properties, such as beaches, parks, roads, bridges etc. By this logic, drinking alcohol in public places should be legal, as should snorting cocaine for that matter. Smoking tobacco, cannabis, etc., however, should not be permitted in public places.

    Note that some people may claim that they don’t want people doing any drugs in public because it’s “not decent,” “sinful,” “disgusting,” etc. This argument should be ignored because you have no right not to be offended (as discussed above).

    Private Usage
    Again, the guiding principle here is that the individual can do as s/he pleases as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Thus, drinking, shooting up, etc. in your backyard is fine, because it is not going to harm anyone who is not in your backyard. Smoking in your back yard, however, should not be permitted because it can harm your neighbor and pollute his or her airspace. You have no right to pollute your neighbor’s property, including the air above his property, so smoking is out. If you live in a multi-family residence, similar rules apply. If your drug use affects people in neighboring apartments, it should not be permitted.

    Special case: if you have children, you’re potential drug use will be much more limited. Since exposure to smoke is harmful to the child, parents should not be permitted to smoke at home, or in the presence of their children. Furthermore, given the danger of exposing children to certain drug paraphernalia, such as needles, any recreational drug use that involves such devices should be prohibited within the home. So that leaves coffee, weed brownies, alcohol and most things that one snorts.

    (If you’re thinking this is unenforceable, hold that thought; I will get to it. If you’re thinking that snorting cocaine around your children might be unwise, I’m getting to that, too.)

    Business Usage

    ‘If I want to open a bar where people can smoke, why should the government interfere?’ This is a question asked by the many bar owners where smoking bans have been debated. Well, I’ll tell you why: The bartenders were dying of cancer, there were very few non-smoking bars and the whole mess was contributing to social acceptance of second-hand smoke.

    Now you can argue that bartenders choose that profession and if they don’t want to take the risk they can get a different job. That may be true in places where demand for workers exceeds supply, but in places where the opposite is true, the options may be job-that-gives-you-cancer or no job. If you scale up this argument to the societal level, a huge percentage of jobs become dangerous, and many workers are forced to suffer the consequences or go on welfare. If one argues that non-smokers don’t have to go to bars, a similar rebuttal applies: if you scale up this argument to the societal level, businesses are no longer responsible to maintain safe environments. Free market enthusiasts will argue that the market will take care of it: that people will pay more for safe environments. Yes, the way they paid more for safe cars in the 70s. Many people do not understand abstract costs like unsafe environments, so the free market is not an effective mechanism to deal with this problem. Didn’t anyone notice that even though a large proportion of bar-goers do not smoke, there was a strange dearth of no-smoking bars. I’m not going to get into this further, because it’s not important for the present discussion.

    Now let’s turn this around. Suppose one has a bar with an air-tight smoking room with a highly-effective ventilation system such that patrons outside the smoking room have no exposure to smoke. Further suppose that servers must wear protective masks when entering that room such that risks to their health are neutralized. The smokers in that room are now not hurting anyone but themselves, so there is no reason to prohibit smoking in this context. Sure, the masks might look silly, but so do hairnets on chefs, and no one even notices that anymore.

    In sum, if a business wants to permit the use of a drug on its premises, it should be allowed to do so provided it take steps necessary to eliminate harm to its employees and patrons who do not wish to partake in the drug.

    This is necessary because, if use of a drug is prohibited in both public and commercial spaces, users are forced to drop their habits or partake at home, which I have already demonstrated is not acceptable in some instances because of the danger to children of the users. By instead promoting a system whereby drug use is done in commercial spaces, some responsibility can be transferred to the business in exchange for its profits.

    Next week I will continue explaining and elaborating this strategy, dealing specifically with special treatment of drugs that impair judgment and differentiating drugs based on the level of danger involved. We will see how the idea of drug use in commercial spaces is a powerful tool for mitigating the harmful social consequences of drug use and addiction.

    On to Part 4 –>