Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are the victims of an ill-conceived war. On Tuesday night, the two convicted Australian drug traffickers were executed by firing squad in Indonesia. They have become the latest victims in the unwinnable “war on drugs”.
In the months leading up to the executions, federal politicians – including Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and Tanya Plibersek – made impassioned pleas to the Indonesian government to spare Chan and Sukumaran’s lives. Unfortunately, they were unable to make the most persuasive argument for clemency because Australia is a combatant in this same misguided war.
There is a key argument that was unavailable to these politicians in pleading for clemency. It is the claim that it is morally wrong to punish autonomous adults who wish to use or supply recreational drugs. They should not be fined, they should not be imprisoned and they certainly should not be executed.
The war on ‘choice’
Let’s assume that most adults are capable of making choices about how they should live their lives and that the state should be largely neutral regarding these choices. To reject this assumption is to open the door to a large amount of state intervention in the personal lives of citizens. This is why we let people decide their careers, their partners, their hobbies and activities.
However, the major exception to this is the use of drugs. The war on drugs is a civil war waged by the government against a sub-set of its citizens who have a preference for recreational drugs. The Australian government’s National Drugs Strategy, for example, claims that drug use needs to be controlled because of the harm caused to the user. The morally right thing is to protect the person from self-harm, so it turns out that the war on drugs is a just war after all.
But why should self-harm from drug use be prohibited when harm from alcohol, cigarettes and various other dangerous activities is permitted? Maybe recreational drug use causes much more harm than other activities. If this was the case I would support their prohibition. If a drug poses a large risk of serious harm to everyone who takes it then it should be banned if there is a good chance the ban will actually prevent the harm.
But this is not the case with heroin, the drug Chan, Sukumaran and seven others were planning to smuggle out of Indonesia in 2005.
Most heroin users do not become long-term addicts and those who do usually survive. The unfortunate deaths that occur are mainly because the drug is illegal, unregulated and, as a consequence, impure. The major effects of unadulterated heroin are addiction and constipation, not death.
Perhaps recreational drugs users lose the capacity to make choices: this would undermine our original assumption. This is the unfortunate result for some addicts, but again most people who use drugs do not become addicted. It is unjust to penalise this large group of people so that a much smaller group might not inflict self-harm.
As for those who are damaged through drug use, do we really want to add to their woes by making them criminals? We don’t do this to people who harm themselves rock climbing or who smoke and drink too much.
What about the harms to society?
What about the harm that is caused to society through the use of recreational drugs? Does this make the war on drugs a just cause? Not really. The obvious place to look here is Portugal, but its reforms in 2000 were only partial: drugs were decriminalised rather than made legal. Nevertheless the results have been positive.
Legalising drugs would save huge amounts of money – A$4.7 billion in Australia, according to one calculation. There is a good chance it would limit police corruption – if drug use is no longer illegal, then there is no crime for the police to engage in. It would free up the court system and reduce the prison population.
Legalised drugs would have to meet standards of purity and hence would be safer, providing a large payoff for the individual and the over-burdened health system. Legalising recreational drug use would not only save a fortune but, as they are discovering in Colorado, add significantly to government coffers. The legal marijuana industry in Colorado – where the drug is legal for recreational and medicinal purposes – collected almost US$700 million in sales in 2014, generating US$63 million in tax revenue.
Allowing private individuals to buy and sell recreational drugs under controlled conditions gets rid of at least some of the social harms associated with drug use.
Another popular idea is that drug users harm society because they become lazy and unproductive. There is very little evidence to support this claim. Roughly 80 million Americans have used recreational drugs and it has not led to the dire consequences predicted by prohibitionists. Even if the argument is correct, is it really a good idea to make unproductive laziness a criminal offence?
We have plenty of evidence that the war on drugs has failed as public policy, but the comments of Abbott, Bishop and Plibersek demonstrate that our politicians still think it is a righteous moral fight. They all condemned the actions of Chan and Sukumaran as immoral, and seemed unperturbed by lengthy prison sentences.
However, it is not a worthy fight. It uses the full force of a state’s coercive apparatus to unjustly target its own citizens. The war on drugs causes more harm than good and, from a moral perspective, it is time for prohibitionists to lay down their arms and surrender.