A Debate for the Ages, Part III: Civil Rights Versus Civil Disobedience, or Doing Drugs In the Free World

Editor’s Note: In this, the third installment of Points’ “A Debate for the Ages” series, Emily Dufton discusses the White House Conference on Youth’s pronouncement on personal rights and subsequent public debates on Americans’ rights – or lack thereof – to casual drug use.

In the Preamble to the 1971 Report of the White House Conference on Youth (which I mentioned in my first post), the nearly 1,500 conference delegates reaffirmed the importance of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They also added a few other “crucial” amendments, outlining rights that would “be meaningful to all persons in our society.” Those rights included:

  • The Right to adequate food, clothing, and a decent home.
  • The Right of the individual to do her/his thing, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of another.
  • The Right to preserve and cultivate ethnic and cultural heritages.
  • The Right to do whatever is necessary to preserve these Rights.
People Doing Their Own Thing

Like the other focuses of the conference, such as the draft, education, unemployment, and environmentalism, these ‘Rights’ spoke clearly to the delegates’ desire to live peacefully and prosperously in their natural and political terrain. In the realm of drug use, however, one of these rights stands out from the rest: the ‘Right of the individual to do her/his thing.’ As long as no one gets hurt or has their own rights trampled upon, the delegates argued, why does an individual’s choice to smoke pot or shoot heroin necessitate regulation (or punishment) from the federal government? In other words, why do basic personal rights collapse as soon as imbibed chemicals are involved?

In the debate over the root causes of drug use, particularly over the question of whether it is a personal choice, the issues of personal and societal rights frames the discussion completely. Drug use (or nonuse) may be a choice, a right, or even a function of a free-market, capitalist economy. The questions that the conference delegates bring up are sound: Do we have a right to unimpeded personal conduct (including the right to alter our consciousness) so long as no one else is being harmed? Or is the personal harm caused by drug use sufficient for federal prohibition? If we as a society are allowed to do a variety of other dangerous things (bungee jumping, skydiving, and consuming legal liquor and cigarettes, for instance), why does drug use cross the line between a ‘personal right’ and a ‘societal danger’?  And, really, what causes more harm: drug use itself, or the prohibitionist war on drugs?

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