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The Moral Incoherence of Drug Prohibition

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The state of Rhode Island is considering the legalization of recreational marijuana, and some opponents of legalization have jumped in to demand the status quo continues. 

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday for example, that Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin has come out forcefully against the legalization of marijuana claiming that marijuana turns people into "zombie-like individuals." 

Tobin's implied support for breaking up families and jailing fathers, wives, mothers, and husbands — for the "crime" of using a plant that Tobin dislikes — is illustrative. Tobin's positions provide us with a helpful and high-profile example of the flaws in attempts to make moral arguments claiming that non-violent activities should be regulated and punished by states. 

What Prohibition Means 

A call for the continued criminalization of marijuana use and sales necessary implies support for jailing and punishing individuals who deal in the production, use, or distribution of this particular plant. 

This also brings with it tacit approval and support of everything that comes with government prohibition. With every law comes the need to enforce that law. Support for legal prohibition means either explicit or implied support for the following:

  • The use of taxpayer funds to support courts for the legal prosecution of drug users including the necessary staff and real estate. These resources are necessarily diverted from being used to prosecute and try perpetrators of violent crime including murderers, rapists, thieves, and other violators of property rights. 
  • The use of taxpayer funds to support a police force to apprehend violators, including surveillance equipment, paid informants, police staff, automobiles, and jails. This necessarily draws resources away from police activities designed to capture rapists, murderers, thieves, and other violent criminals. 
  • The use of taxpayer funds to build, maintain, and staff a system of jails and prisons for the warehousing of drug-use convicts which also necessitates resources to be provided for food, health care, and other amenities.
  • The destruction of marriages and families which results from the incarceration or drug users. 
  • An increase in the number of single-parent families (due to one parent being incarcerated), and the resulting increase of poverty. 

Moreover, prohibition leads to the creation of black markets and empowers organized crime outfits and other violent criminals who thrive under the conditions created by prohibition. In response to these side effects, the prohibitionists simply call for even more policing, more public expense, and more incarceration.  

To be fair, it could be that Tobin is actually opposed to harsh penalties for drug use, and that he favors decriminalization. If that is the case, he needs to clarify the difference between this position and his call to "say no to the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island." But make no mistake, if Tobin takes any position that calls for the sanctioning of private individuals at taxpayer expense, the burden of proof is on him to demonstrate that his preferred course of action — i.e., state coercion — is preferable to people minding their own business. 

Why Not Alcohol? 

Since drug prohibition is such a costly and socially disruptive endeavor, it must be that the costs of drug use are unique in their severity. If they weren't, then it's hard to understand how any humane person could support prohibition. 

So what are the costs of drug usage, according to Tobin? 

Aside from Tobin's second-hand conclusions about zombies based on the highly scientific observations of an unnamed businessman, Tobin also notes that drug use is responsible for "impaired and dangerous driving," and "health problems" including "concerns during pregnancy." Also dangerous, Tobin notes, is the fact that marijuana can offer "an escape" to young people, who, in addition to destructive activities like wearing "hoodies," may be transported by drugs further into "the land of oblivion." 

Reading about Tobin's concern with all of these issues, I naturally wanted to learn more about Tobin's call for the prohibition of alcohol. Given Tobin's lis tof concerns, of course, it logically follows that Tobin must also be in favor of alcohol prohibition. After all, if one is concerned about intoxicating substances that impair health and safe driving, alcohol would be an obvious target for prohibition.  

The health problems related to alcohol, of course have been documented for many years, and in 2013 alone, more than 10,000 Americans died from injuries sustained in alcohol-related auto accidents. Alcohol is also closely linked to domestic abuse and a myriad of social ills. 

So, does Tobin support prohibition on alcohol as well? It appears he does not. 

As with everyone who calls for the abolition of social ills via drug prohibition, yet tolerates the legal selling of alcohol, Tobin must first explain why alcohol-related social ills do not warrant prohibition while he calls for legal action against marijuana users. If Tobin is so ready to imprison people for growing a marijuana plant, why is Tobin not equally set against an intoxicating substance that is shown to increase the likelihood of violent behavior? Without a clear explanation of the distinction here, the rest of Tobin's claims display a damaging inconsistency, and we're forced to conclude his opposition to marijuana is arbitrary.

Moreover, why is Tobin so concerned about the effects of drug use in Colorado? His time might be better spent focusing on the fact that binge drinking is more prevalent in Rhode Island than it is Colorado. And if health is such a great concern of his, he might perhaps better spend his time combating obesity, which is far more damaging to public health overall than is marijuana use. Notably, the obesity rate is substantially higher in Rhode Island than it is in Colorado. 

In his essay, Tobin appears to recognize the need to differentiate between alcohol and drugs in order to sound coherent. However, unable to come up with a scientific, objective, or evidence-based reason for tolerating alcohol, Tobin falls back on an appeal to authority instead. 

To sidestep the argument, Tobin appeals to the Catholic Catechism which states "the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life...their use ... is a grave offense." 

That's fair enough, but what is a drug? Neither Tobin nor the Catechism give any definition and no clarifying footnotes are provided in the Catechism. Any scientific or objective examination of intoxicating substances would include both marijuana and alcohol within this category. Tobin simply ignores this, and in quoting the Catechism, Tobin triumphantly intones: "there is no exception for marijuana." But, as Tobin conveniently fails to mention: there is no reason that alcohol should be excepted either. 

Tobin might protest and say "well, of course by 'drugs' the catechism doesn't mean alcohol" In that case, the question remains: "why not"? By what objective measure does the catechism make this distinction? It remains a mystery. 

Why Not Punish Other Immoral Activities Similarly? 

As a final note, we must ask Bp. Tobin if all activities with harmful social effects should be outlawed? Should adultery be outlawed? If not, why not? Certainly, the social effects of divorce and broken homes are not something to be ignored. If the proper use of public policy is to punish and imprison people for committing a "grave offense" then surely adultery must be punished similarly to marijuana use. Moreover, based on Tobin's arguments, we might also conclude that prostitution is punished too lightly. Given the negative social and health effects of prostitution, it is important that we punish prostitution as we do drug use, with harsh prison terms doled out to prostitutes who engage in the "distribution" of this harmful activity. The grave nature of their offenses surely demands it. 


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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