The harm principle states that any one person is only responsible for one’s own self and others are not obligated to protect someone from harming himself or herself. The only instance where society is justified to interfere with a person’s actions is when that person poses a threat to others. We are each sovereign, in body and mind, and no one else has the right to decide how anyone else should live, so long as no harm is being done to another. John Stuart Mill’s essay, On Liberty, is the source of this philosophical concept, and is just as important in the midst of marijuana prohibition, as it was during the time that it was published. Mill’s moral treatise on personal conduct was released during the days of temperance, when our nation shifted toward the dangerous, nonsensical, and counterproductive game of outlawing alcohol. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn enough from that historical lesson, and have now found ourselves in another predicament with a substance that not only poses less threat of harm to society, but actually has many practical uses and possesses very important medicinal qualities…cannabis.
Some would say that drug users set a bad example for others, particularly in regard to a child’s parental exemplars. When it comes to paternal protectiveness of children, this is one area where Mill was willing to concede. However, cannabis is a medicinal herb, and can hardly be placed on the same level as heroin, LSD, or even psilocybin. Furthermore, Mill would probably respond to this argument, by saying that position is simply incoherent. If a behavior is truly harmful, people will see the harm and they will be discouraged from then doing the same thing. He would also say that we should punish the harm, not the behavior. It just makes no sense to punish people preemptively for something that may lead to harm, for them or for others, but cannot be determined to always be harmful. However, it does make sense to punish those who drink heavily and get behind the wheel of a car, because that has been proven to pose a great threat of harm. But this still doesn’t justify outright prohibition, based on the harm that alcohol may cause to anyone, including the user.
As for the prohibition of drugs, there really is no justifiable reason for banning them completely, simply on the premise that they may be harmful to the user. Whether any drug is harmful to the the person using it, to their relationships with others, or even toward society, there’s simply no good reason for banning them and waging a total “war on drugs.” Another great philosopher named Michael Huemer says the argument that states we should ban drugs because they harm the user is implausible, because there are plenty of things that are legal and harmful to people, but we don’t ban those things. And to the argument that drugs can harm your family, or make you a worse citizen or something to that effect, Huemer says that a person can conceivably harm relationships with family, or choose to be a bad citizen of their own accord, without the use of drugs. And besides, it isn’t certain that doing drugs would even lead to such things in the first place, so we can’t outlaw drug use simply because it might lead to some detrimental action, attitude, or activities.
This is a double standard because you can’t be thrown in jail for any of the reasons behind the justification of drug prohibition, if you’re not actually using drugs. People aren’t arrested for choosing not to vote or having poor familial relations. Huemer claims that drug laws are unjust because there is no real reason for people to be incarcerated. He says people have a right to do drugs because we each have rights over our own bodies. No other person, law enforcement agency, or government entity has any business knowing or limiting what we choose to put into our own bodies. If we want to live in a truly free society, then our laws will uphold the freedom for us all to make our choices of our own volition, and even to our own detriment, if we so choose. The law only needs to punish the harm that is caused to anyone affected by another person’s bad decisions. There is no reason for it to intervene by attempting to prevent people from doing drugs, based on the premise that it might cause harm to anyone.
Human beings can easily determine right from wrong, and we all have the innate capacity to learn from the mistakes of others. If people can’t see that heroin, cocaine, meth, and even many of the legal pharmaceutical drugs that are on the market are harmful and often addictive, then they should still have the right to experiment and learn the hard way. It is through education, experimentation and examination that we learn the lessons we need to learn in order to continue on with life. If the law isn’t going to serve the people to those ends, then the law is irrelevant and should be usurped, changed, or thrown out completely.