In the article “Recreational Drugs and Paternalism”, Douglas N. Husak discusses many varying philosophic theories and principles to defend his central argument: that the pervasive societal thought toward recreation drug use is unfounded. Husak introduces paternalism – the legislative theory with the belief that effective legislation protects people from harming themselves, and consequently limits personal freedom. Examples of paternalistic laws include statutes regarding seat belt use, assisted suicide, and gambling.
Husak provides paternalism as a rationale for the harsh federal drug laws currently in place; he raises this question, “what properties must a drug possess that sound paternalistic principles justify its prohibition?” (361). To strengthen this point, Husak lists socially acceptable drugs such as alcohol, caffeine, and Advil, which are used recreational for varying purposes. For Husak, the hypocrisy arises at this point; many other substances can provide the same effect and assist the individual in the same capacity as the aforementioned drugs, so on what basis should those other substances be illegal?
The answer lies within the complex, and often indescribable, realm of societal norms. Husak makes this clear, “No one doubts that substantial support for the paternalistic case against given drugs derives from the fact that use of these substances is already illegal,” and “surely a large part of the reason why some drugs are so harmful stems from their illegality” (360).
Husak defends his position further through the consequentialist theory. He makes the sensible claim that “legislation that violates personal rights should be treated with skepticism regardless of the beneficial consequences it promotes” (364). He raises activities which render pleasure for the user, such as watching television, and compares it to the pleasure derived from recreational drug use. Husak concedes, however, that although the pleasure of drug use may possess more utility than disutility (as defined by John Stuart Mill and his theory of utilitarianism), this rationalization cannot be universally accepted in all instances. Husak offers the example of rape – the pleasure derived from raping another person does not outweigh the egregious violation of personal rights.
Husak utilizes the principle of autonomy – the right of individuals to make choices and decisions – to aid in his argument, as well. Encompassed in the description of autonomy is the right to put whatever one wants into one’s own body. This seems to be a direct affirmation of recreational drug use. Husak furthers this idea by offering this example: if legislation were in place prohibiting the consumption of french fries due to its numerous negative consequences, public outcry would be swift and harsh, however, under the same principle of personal autonomy, for what reason is cocaine illegal?
Building off the principle of autonomy, Husak discusses voluntary and non-voluntary action. He cites Feinberg’s Mr. Roe and Dr. Doe example to further defend his argument. In the first example, Mr. Roe uses a drug mistakenly believing it causes no physical harm, thus making the action “substantially non-voluntary, because he does not intend to ingest a substance that will harm him” (371).
In example two, Mr. Roe understands the drug is harmful, but uses it anyway with the intention of harming himself – Feinberg believes this is also non-voluntary due to Mr. Roe’s probable loss of mental faculties.
The third, and most pertinent, example details Mr. Roe ingesting a substance with no intention to harm himself, but rather he states, “I don’t care if it causes me physical harm. I’ll get a lot of pleasure first, so much pleasure that it is well worth the risk” (371). Feinberg believes this to be an “easy” case, as Mr. Roe is in possession of his mental faculties and still desires to abuse the drug.
Prohibiting Mr. Roe from using the substance is a clear violation of the principle of autonomy because his action is voluntary. Husak believes the vast majority of recreational drug users fall under the third example; in sum “Most persons consume drugs for much the same reason as they eat ice cream, hang glide, or ride motorcycles; they believe that the likelihood of immediate pleasure outweighs the risk of eventual harm” (372).
The most obvious opposition in allowing the legality of many drugs is the fear of addiction. Husak recognizes addiction on three levels – tolerance, psychological centrality, and physical dependence. Husak believes only physical dependence to be a non-voluntary action. Husak debunks this opposition by stating that drugs with addictive properties (caffeine, nicotine) are legal, while drugs without addictive qualities are illegal (LSD), thus making it unrealistic to legalize drugs solely on the basis of addiction. Further, Husak, correctly, states that “no one becomes addicted to a drug upon his initial use. The fact that the addictive process is gradual leaves an opportunity for reconsideration…” (377). Husak also raises an interesting question in regard to addiction: “what percentage of users of an addictive drug must become addicts before its prohibition can be justified on soft paternalist principles?” (378).