A Journal for Western Man




Principles for Resolving the

Premodern-Modern Controversy over

Drug Legalization

G. Stolyarov II

Issue LXXX- November 25, 2006



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Eden against the Colossus


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Statement of Policy



            Most representatives of the premodern worldview would argue against drug legalization on the grounds that consumption of such substances is inconsistent with man’s nature and with virtue. The job of government, according to the premoderns, is to bring about the good in the society and ensure that the people act rightly; thus, this job includes combating wrong, harmful, immoral, and unnatural activities, such as drug consumption.

            Most representatives of the modern worldview would support drug legalization as a necessary component of individual autonomy. The rational individual should be left free to choose how to lead his life—provided he does not violate the rights of others; he does not require the coercive impositions of government to lead him to virtue. Rather, he should be allowed to discover virtue on his own or suffer the consequences of any practical or moral errors he commits.

            To obtain some agreement on drug legalization, the only expedient means is to argue within the premises of each worldview and see if the moderns and premoderns can reach the same conclusions while starting from different fundamental premises and holding different core ideas regarding how the government ought to act and what “goods” it ought to secure. For the premoderns, the desirability of drug legalization will depend on whether it can be shown to increase or diminish virtuous behavior in society. For the moderns, its acceptability will depend on the possibility of isolating the harmful effects of drug consumption to solely the individuals who choose to consume them or otherwise assume those harms of their own free will.

Considerations for Premoderns

            For exponents of the premodern worldview, the key question on this issue is whether drug legalization will diminish or increase drug abuse—the vicious behavior in question. Furthermore, premoderns are concerned with drug legalization’s secondary effects on virtue in other areas. If drug legalization can be shown to increase other vices, that will be a strong argument against it for premoderns. On the other hand, if it can be shown to diminish vices which frequently accompany drug trafficking and consumption today—such as gang violence, corruption, black markets, ghetto destitution, and lawlessness—then individuals and society will be more virtuous and good if drugs are legalized.

            To determine whether drug legalization will diminish or increase drug abuse, an examination of whether drug prohibition can in fact diminish such abuse needs to be made. Advocates of drug legalization such as Milton Friedman have compared drug prohibition to the prohibition of alcohol in the United States during the 1920s. Friedman comments on Prohibition’s complete failure to stop alcohol consumption: “Prohibition undermined respect for the law, corrupted the minions of the law, created a decadent moral climate—but did not stop the consumption of alcohol” (Friedman 1972). The considerable increases in homicide and gang warfare during the Prohibition period—as well as increases in drunk driving and public drunkenness—furnish empirical evidence that Prohibition not only failed to curtail alcohol use but actually expanded it and amplified its ill effects (see Poholek 1998).

            If there is indeed no major difference between the War on Drugs and the Prohibition of the 1920s, that alone should suffice to convince premoderns that the War on Drugs is bound to fail and result in the opposite of the intended effects. However, the similarity between Prohibition and the War on Drugs is also open to dispute. Theodore Dalrymple questions the comparison’s legitimacy: “it is one thing to attempt to ban a substance that has been in customary use for centuries by at least nine-tenths of the adult population, and quite another to retain a ban on substances that are still not in customary use, in an attempt to ensure that they never do become customary” (Dalrymple 1997). Under this argument, the War on Drugs should not meet with as many enforcement difficulties as Prohibition, because a majority of contemporary society is not attached to currently illegal drugs in the way that a majority of Americans is attached to alcohol. Incentives to flout the law would—by this argument—be less of a problem under the War on Drugs than they were under Prohibition. Dalrymple argues that if currently illegal drugs do become acceptable in mainstream culture, this would carry devastating social effects and cripple the potential of most individuals to lead productive and virtuous lives.  Dalrymple and many premoderns support the War on Drugs as a preventive measure against the widespread social dissolution they think would follow from the increased acceptance of legalized drugs.

            Thus, whether premoderns can be convinced to support drug legalization depends on whether the fundamental similarity between Prohibition and the War on Drugs can be established. A thorough historical examination of both would be needed to ascertain or refute such a similarity. Such an examination would need to explore whether enforcement methods in each government effort were largely similar, the magnitude of the consequences of each effort on alcohol and drug consumption, respectively, the magnitude of each effort’s secondary effects, and whether the consequences of the two efforts tended in the same direction. In evaluating, for example, statistics on how greatly drug consumption has increased since the beginning of drug prohibition versus how greatly alcohol consumption had increased during the Prohibition era, it might be possible to isolate the effects of the phenomenon Dalrymple cites as a primary reason for the dissimilarity between Prohibition and the War on Drugs. If drug consumption has increased less dramatically than alcohol consumption had, then it might be possible that Dalrymple’s distinction is the reason; such results might show that it is more difficult to effectively prohibit a substance consumed by the majority of the society than it is to prohibit a substance consumed by a minority fringe. However, if drug consumption for any thirteen-year period since the inception of the War on Drugs could be shown to have increased more dramatically than alcohol consumption during Prohibition, Dalrymple’s claim would be put under serious doubt—for if Dalrymple admits that Prohibition’s goal was impossible to attain, then such statistics would show that the goal of the War on Drugs is even less realizable.

            Even if drug legalization will not diminish the prevalence of drug abuse, premoderns might be persuaded to support it for its positive effects in restraining worse vices. In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas makes an argument for the toleration of certain lesser vices by law, even though the purpose of law is to make men good:

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils. (Aquinas 1273)

Aquinas’s observation can be applied to the situation of many drug addicts in a society whose laws prohibit their habit. Already considered criminals by the law and given heavy punishments if caught, the drug addicts have no restraint but their drug-distorted consciences on their commission of other crimes—such as theft in order to obtain the money needed to purchase further drugs. While drug consumption is a vice that damages the user and has ill indirect effects on society, theft is a greater vice that directly damages other human beings and society. If drug users were able to purchase drugs legally, such instances of theft—proponents of legalization could argue—would decline. Milton Friedman presents statistics which indicate that the tendency Aquinas describes is indeed happening under the War on Drugs: “A recent committee of the American Bar Association estimated that addicts commit one-third to one-half of all street crime in the U.S. Legalize drugs, and street crime would drop dramatically” (Friedman 1972). To resolve an argument of this sort, it will be necessary to ascertain whether it can at all be possible to restrict drug consumption—the lesser vice—without facilitating the greater vices resulting from its illegalization. If it is shown that illegalization itself spawns these greater vices through black-market activities which are unchecked by law, then the premodern might even be convinced to support drug legalization even if it is accompanied by an increase in drug use—provided that the greater vices are reduced.

            In addressing this issue, however, it is possible for a premodern to respond that legalizing the lesser vice might facilitate the greater vice rather than act as a check on it. Dalrymple makes such an argument with respect to certain stimulant drugs such as crack cocaine, which “provoke paranoia, increase aggression, and promote violence. Much of this violence takes place in the home, as the relatives of crack takers will testify” (Dalrymple 1997). This violence, according to Dalrymple, occurs because of the physical effects of the drugs on the individual who consumes them—rather than because of the secondary effects of the drugs’ illegality. If the opponents of drug legalization can demonstrate that the very consumption of certain drugs leads directly to criminal acts in a sizable number of instances—during which the individual loses control over his faculties in a manner similar to that of a drunk driver—prohibitions on those particular substances might be justified, especially for circumstances where their link to criminality is particularly strong. Moderns need not object to prohibitions of that sort, because—like drunk driving—consumption of such drugs ceases to be a matter of an individual harming solely himself. If coercive harms necessarily arise to others, then both premoderns and moderns might agree that certain prohibitions are justified. Yet prohibitions under such a principle would be far less restrictive than those currently in place; marijuana, opiates, and other non-stimulants would become legal because they do not make individuals more physiologically inclined to harm others.  

            The most effective argument for persuading premoderns to support drug legalization, however, would show that drug legalization might actually facilitate reduction of drug abuse itself. Though the opponent of drug use will no longer have the coercive power of the law on his side, he will still be free to persuade individuals not to use harmful substances; he will also be able to affect the culture in ways that render such consumption less socially acceptable. Simultaneously, the incentive for many individuals—especially teenagers—to consume drugs will be diminished because of the disappearance of the “forbidden fruit effect,” whereby certain individuals find a substance attractive merely because of its illegality. A discussion of such an effect’s magnitude could determine its contribution to current drug consumption. Current drug addicts could be surveyed regarding their motives for initiating drug consumption. If it is shown that the drugs’ illegality positively factored into many of their decisions, then legalizing drugs would eliminate this influence and reduce new drug addiction correspondingly. Milton Friedman further argues that drug marketing techniques would change in a legalized environment so as to make initial drug addiction less likely:

More important, many drug addicts are deliberately made by pushers, who give likely prospects their first few doses free. It pays the pusher to do so because, once hooked, the addict is a captive customer. If drugs were legally available, any possible profit from such inhumane activity would disappear, since the addict could buy from the cheapest source. (Friedman 1972)

To verify Friedman’s claim, it would be helpful to examine statistics regarding what percentage of drug addicts were initially lured to drugs by pushers offering free doses. If this percentage is substantial, then the creation of new drug addicts in a legalized environment would decline substantially as well. To support the claim that drug abuse would diminish under legalization, it would be useful to also examine prior historical periods during which currently illegal drugs were legal and readily available, including the late 19th century. Using such an examination, it would be possible to ascertain the effects that non-coercive moral persuasion and social sanctions have against drug abuse.

Considerations for Moderns

            Those who hold the modern worldview often speak of the beneficial effects drug legalization would have as well as the harmful effects that such legalization would reduce. However, the moderns’ primary reason for supporting drug legalization is the desirability of individual self-sovereignty and autonomy. The individual should be permitted to decide for himself how to lead his life—including whether to benefit or to harm his body—provided that he deprives no other human being of his rights. The argument from individual autonomy in favor of drug legalization rests on the assumption that it is possible to confine the harmful effects of drug consumption to the individual alone. Whether such confinement of effects is possible is the decisive question for moderns on this issue. If the opponent of drug legalization could show that it necessarily imposes coercive harms on others and violates their rights, then moderns would be given a reason to support some legal restraints on drug use.

             It has already been shown that a modern might consistently support prohibitions of any drugs shown to directly cause or strongly incline an individual to commit violent crimes. Prohibition on these grounds, however, would still be of far smaller scope than prohibition under the status quo. The opponents of legalization could, however, claim that drug addiction per se imposes certain coercive harms upon others. If, for instance, a man has children and neglects to provide for their basic sustenance due to his drug addiction habit, this is a violation of the rights of the children—whom the parent has a legal obligation to sustain until they become autonomous. For such an argument to be effective, it remains to be determined whether child abuse and neglect are substantially higher among families where the parents use illegal drugs compared to families where they do not. Even if such a correlation established, however, this would not necessarily justify drug prohibition—provided that the existing legal apparatus for dealing with cases of child abuse and neglect could effectively combat instances where such abuse and neglect is linked with drugs. Such an argument, furthermore, would not justify forbidding drugs to individuals who consume them and yet have not neglected or abused their children.

            Another issue on which opponents of drug legalization might challenge the moderns is the very possibility of maintaining individual autonomy in a society where harmful drugs are widely used. If drugs are so widely consumed as to warp the judgment, impair the intellect, and obstruct the productive capacities of most of the individuals in a society, the eternal vigilance of the people—needed to protect against the erosion of rights by tyrants and demagogues—would be lost, and an ambitious government would expand its scope of controls over individual lives unchecked.  Furthermore, the drug addicts themselves might clamor for an expanded role for government—including the funding of medical facilities to treat drug problems or even the facilitation of free distribution of drugs to the addicts—as has happened in the Netherlands. This would be a clear violation of the rights of individual taxpayers, who would not wish to pay to support somebody else’s self-destructive habit. To demonstrate this claim, however, the opponent of drug legalization would at least need to show convincingly that drug use will increase after drugs are legalized—or else the deleterious effects on rights enforcement due to drug use will be no greater than they have already been, in which case it is possible to argue that drug legalization will make the status quo no worse in this regard and might even improve it by securing to individuals a hitherto disrespected liberty.


            Much of the dispute over drug legalization among premoderns and moderns can be resolved by examining historical facts, statistical data, and questions of cause and effect. The extent to which drug prohibition corresponds to drug use and other vices and crimes and the extent to which drug use itself fuels crime and vice are issues examining which will at least refine both premoderns’ and moderns’ views on this question. Following such an examination, if a consensus is reached, it is likely to be neither a position in favor of legalizing all currently illegal drugs nor in favor of continuing the current blanket prohibition of virtually all non-medical drugs except nicotine and alcohol. On the one hand, both sides will likely agree that prohibiting extreme stimulants like crack cocaine—which directly influence violent crime—is desirable, along with possible limited restrictions on drug use by parents to ensure that such use does not violate their children’s rights to a minimum standard of upbringing. On the other hand, both sides will be inclined to agree that cutting back the current expansive scope of drug prohibition and draconian but ineffective enforcement is necessary, either to secure individual autonomy or to eliminate the greater vices resulting from the current prosecution of the War on Drugs.

            Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. 1273. [1920, 2006]. Summa Theologica. New Advent. Available from http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2096.htm#2. Accessed 12 November 2006.

Dalrymple, Theodore. 1997. “Don’t Legalize Drugs.” City Journal. Available from http://www.city-journal.org/html/7_2_a1.html. Accessed 12 November 2006.

Friedman, Milton. 1972. “Prohibition and Drugs.” Newsweek. Available from http://www.druglibrary.org/special/friedman/prohibition_and_drugs.htm. Accessed 12 November 2006.

Poholek, Catherine H. 1998. “Prohibition in the 1920s: Thirteen Years that Damaged America.” Available from http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Troy/4399/. Accessed 12 November 2006.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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