The state of Colorado is providing a good example of how American society would work without drug laws.
There are two main arguments for legalizing drugs:
First, people have the right, under fundamental principles of liberty, to ingest anything they want. What a person puts into his mouth is none of the state’s business. No matter how much government officials feel a person is harming himself by what he is ingesting, no one has the legitimate authority to interfere with a person’s decision on how to live his life, so long as his conduct is peaceful. Freedom entails engaging in any peaceful behavior, even (or especially) when the choices don’t comport with the values of other people.
Second, the drug war produces tremendous adverse consequences, such as drug gangs, drug cartels, murders, robberies, muggings, kidnappings, and bribery of government officials, not to mention adding to the ever-growing levels of federal spending, debt, taxation, and inflation, as well as bringing about ever-increasing infringements on civil liberties and privacy at the hands of the police and other drug-enforcement personnel.
Through the years, conservatives have often accused libertarians of being “libertines”—that is, of favoring the widespread use of drugs. Their reasoning goes like this: If a person wants to legalize drugs, then that must mean that he wants everyone to use drugs.
Of course, it’s always been a fallacious notion. After all, libertarians don’t want the state to be punishing people for adultery and covetousness either. That doesn’t mean that we favor adultery and coveting.
One of the criticisms that conservatives have leveled against the libertarian idea of drug legalization is that everyone in society will soon be hooked on drugs. The implication is that the only reason that everyone isn’t taking drugs is because of drug laws. As soon as drugs are legalized, conservatives say, everyone (including, presumably, them) will immediately become a drug addict.
Amplifying on this point, conservatives point to the workplace, saying that drug legalization will mean that everyone will be going to work stoned.
But that’s not what how free society works. A genuinely free society is based on private property rights.
Let’s assume that a person owns a home. He has the right to ingest drugs to his heart’s content within his home. But does the fact that a person have the right to ingest drugs generally mean that he has the right to enter your home to consume his drugs there? Of course not. The home belongs to you, not to him. You have the right to exclude him from your home for whatever reason. He has the right to consume drugs but he doesn’t have the right to consume them in your house.
The principle also applies to a private business. The business belongs to the owner. As such, he has the right to set forth the conditions for people entering onto his business, just as he does with his home. Thus, a business owner can say: No one can consume drugs inside my establishment. No one’s rights are violated when he does that. If people don’t like the policy, they don’t have to enter the store.
The same principle applies to employees. The business owner can impose any conditions he wants for working at his store, including drug testing. No one’s rights are violated. If employees or prospective employees don’t like it, they don’t have to work there.
In fact, this is precisely what is happening in Colorado, where possession of marijuana is now legal. All sorts of business establishments are prohibiting employees from ingesting drugs while at work and some are even prohibiting employees from ingesting drugs in their off time.
Are the rights of the employees or prospective employees violated? Of course not. The business owner, as the owner of the establishment, has the right to establish any conditions for employment he wants. Employees are free to work elsewhere if they don’t like the conditions.
This phenomenon is playing out in Colorado, as described in a recent New York Times article entitled “Legal Use of Marijuana Clashes With Job Rules.” The article states that many Colorado businesses are screening for marijuana usage among employees and firing those who fail to pass the test or who refuse to take the test. According to the Times, “Employers and business groups say the screenings identify drug-abusing workers, create a safer workplace, lower their insurance costs and, in some cases, are required by law.”
Marijuana users, on the other hand, say their rights are being violated. But they are wrong. Their rights are not being violated at all. They’re free to continue ingesting drugs to their heart’s content. They’re just not free to do it while working for businesses that don’t allow it.
One man, Brandon Coats, is a medical marijuana user. He takes pot to treat painful spasms. He says that his marijuana use doesn’t affect the job he does at Dish Network. When he failed a drug test, Dish Network laid him off. He’s now suing.
Under libertarian principles, Coats doesn’t have a case. Dish Network has the right to not hire marijuana users. Coats’ rights are not violated. The business is owned by Dish Network, not Coats.
Fortunately, that’s also the way Colorado courts have long ruled. According to the Times, “For years, courts in Colorado and across the country have ruled against marijuana users, saying that companies have the right to create their own drug policies.”
Libertarians have it right. Legalize drugs. Leave people free to live their lives any way they choose, so long as their conduct is peaceful. Some people will ingest drugs. Others won’t. Some businesses will permit consumers and employees to ingest drugs. Others won’t. It’s what a free society is all about.
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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