One of the most powerful arguments I’ve ever heard against the very concept of the War on Drugs was made by Thomas Szasz, the great libertarian psychiatrist.
In the introduction to his wonderful book Our Right to Drugs, Szasz wrote:
“Casting a ballot is an important act, emblematic of our role as citizens. But eating and drinking are much more important acts. If given a choice between the freedom to choose what to ingest and what politician to vote for, few if any would pick the latter. Indeed, why would anyone be so foolish as to sell his natural birthright to consume what he chooses in return for the mess of pottage of being allowed to register his preference for a political candidate?”
“The right to chew or smoke a plant that grows wild in nature, such as hemp (marijuana), is anterior to and more basic than the right to vote.”
This contrast — between the right to vote and the right to choose what substances we ingest — is brilliant, powerful and mind-opening.
Americans treasure our right to vote as a symbol of our liberty and self-governance. Epic struggles have been fought to extend the vote to women and disenfranchised minorities. Fights still wage today over voting issues. In troubled countries around the world people are willing to risk their lives to vote. The right to vote is widely considered sacred.
Yet the right to choose what we put into our own bodies is obviously a more fundamental freedom, a freedom rooted in our very nature as self-controlling adult human beings. In comparison to this freedom, voting is abstract and distant. Voting gives us only one small voice among many. The right to decide what we ingest is far more personal and basic. Indeed, without the ability to exercise that right, the very idea of self-governance is meaningless.
When you think about it, what could be a more fundamental freedom than the right to decide what plants we can consume? How can we consider ourselves free at all if we can’t make this most basic of choices?
Shouldn’t we, then, argue strongly for this right — at least as strongly as we argue for the right to vote?
Thomas Szasz’s powerful analogy can open minds on this difficult subject.