Drugs, Ethics, and Social Ties

In keeping with its long history of printing articles that get people riled up, Slate has recently run a piece by Erik Vance entitled “Cocaine is Evil.”  Vance’s central argument is that American cocaine users – “At our hip little parties, our New Year’s Eve celebrations, our secret back rooms, and on the counters of people from well-off families who are destined for rehab” – are complicit in the horrific atrocities committed by the drug cartels that supply the cocaine that feeds American habits.  He adds “I say that paying for coke is equivalent to donating to the Nazi party.  The unspoken thing here is that the reason Americans aren’t more outraged or guilt-ridden is that the people dying are poor brown people.”

As one might expect, the comments section of the article has been filled with readers protesting that the violence surrounding the traffic in cocaine and other drugs is not their inevitable byproduct but rather the result of governmental drug prohibition statutes.  This comment from the user “Benton Love” is typical – “Hey, Al Capone killed a lot of people too.  They fixed the underlying problem eventually though.  (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t because people stopped drinking.)  Personally, I’m inclined to side with those who argue that most of the violence Vance discusses could be eliminated with the elimination of drug prohibition.  (Though, like some of the commenters, I’m conflicted about the possible consequences of cocaine legalization as opposed to marijuana legalization.)  But regardless of what I think American drug laws ought to be in an ideal world, the current reality in which we live does raise interesting ethical questions for drug users.  Vance hints at these questions in his piece, but more remains to be said.

Though I have no data to confirm it, I doubt that I’m making too big a leap by suggesting that 99.9% of the cocaine users in America – or users of any illegal drug, really – would say that they disapprove of the violence that surrounds the drug trade and wish that it were not  occurring.  From here, I suggest that most (though probably not 99.9%) of the drug users would make two interrelated claims – first, that they, as drug users, are not morally responsible for the violence committed by other people involved in the drug trade, and, second, that the way to eliminate this violence is not by criminalizing the sale and use of these drugs but through legalization.  As I’ve said, I generally agree with the second of those two claims.  It’s the first one that I find ethically knotty.  First of all, I’m no Christopher Lasch, but I think that it must be said that for drug users, “I’m not morally responsible for the violence because I support legalization, which would stop the violence,” is a self-serving argument.  That isn’t all that the argument is – it also happens to be a reasonable (though not unassailable) claim – but it is, among other things, an argument that gives he or she who makes it the ethical license to continue acting in the way that he or she wants to act, which in this case means using drugs.  This doesn’t ipso facto invalidate the argument, but it does provide cause to perhaps subject it to a higher level of ethical scrutiny.

But does the argument also benefit others?  Could one claim that it contributes to the undermining of current drug laws, and that this process of undermining will ultimately lead to the legalization of drugs, which will consequently save the lives of those who might have been killed had prohibition remained in place in perpetuity?  It’s a reasonable argument, but it implies that the violence that occurs prior to the legalization of drugs is a necessary evil.  It is that very violence that will ultimately convince policymakers that drug prohibition is futile and that legalization is necessary to stop the violence.  Horror at violence is not the only way policymakers could be convinced that prohibition is futile, but until legalization occurs, and unless drug users are able and willing to give up drugs, violence will inevitably continue to occur as users continue their drug use while pressing the policymakers to abandon prohibition.  To say that this violence is a necessary evil – or to imply as much through continued drug use – strikes me as ethically questionable.  Is it right for a middle-class American drug user to suggest that he or she has the moral license to use drugs, even if their drug use plays a part (however small) in fueling violence, because the use and the violence will ultimately undermine the legal framework that produces the violence?  Or, more bluntly, that short-term violence is tolerable in light of its role in helping to prevent long-term violence?  This strikes me as highly questionable.  In some cases, short-term violence certainly is ethically justifiable as means to prevent greater violence from occurring in the future – the lives lost in World War II, for instance, likely prevented even greater atrocities that would have taken place had the Axis emerged victorious.  But is the right to use drugs every bit as worth defending through short-term violence as the rights that were at stake in World War II?  The situations aren’t completely analogous, of course, but it’s a question worth considering.

One could also argue that even if violence in the drug trade prior to legalization is ethically intolerable, the casual user cannot be held responsible for it – that he or she is not implicated by virtue of his or her drug use.  If I weren’t buying and using this cocaine or marijuana or crystal meth or whatever it may be, the user might suggest, the dealer would just sell it someone else.  Plus, by the time the drugs get to me, whatever violence has occurred in relation to the drug has likely already taken place.  When I buy drugs from my dealer, there’s no violence taking place, so why blame me?  But the obvious counterargument is that the violent operators at work in the drug trade far away from middle-class America would not ply their trade as aggressively if they did not know that there was a ready audience of middle-class drug users waiting in America to purchase their products.

At the end of the day, we have three groups of actors to consider when examining the drug trade – policymakers, drug cartels and dealers, and users.  (Of course, there is some potential for overlap in these categories.)  Under the status quo of drug prohibition, violence is occurring.  Who, then, should be held responsible for changing their behavior to prevent the violence from occurring?  Is it the policymakers, who could legalize the drugs?  Is it the drug cartels, who could cease the violence?  Is it the users, who could stop providing the market for a product of which violence is currently a byproduct?  Maybe all three?  It seems clear that the group with the strongest and most direct responsibility for the violence is the cartels – it is they, after all, who are carrying it out, even if the actions and inactions of the other two groups facilitate it.  The question is – should the knowledge that one or both of the other groups are acting in ways that contribute to the violence give the other groups license to continue their own actions that contribute to it?  Each group could reasonably ask “Why should I have to change my ways and give up the benefits I receive (the ability to pose as “tough on crime” for the policymakers, profit for the cartels, and highs and, in some cases, social inclusion for the users) if those other guys aren’t willing to give up their benefits?”  And so the status quo – and the violence – continues.

I recognize that asking drug users to give up drugs until legalization occurs is a hopeless and absurd proposition.  Nevertheless, I do suspect that American drug users are, perhaps unwittingly, engaging in ethically complex conduct.  Are they the equivalent of a murderous drug cartel kingpin?  Certainly not, but they are enmeshed with him in a complicated web of social and ethical dynamics.

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