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The Drug Legalization Debate


by Thomas L. Wayburn, PhD

Chemical engineering consultant and writer

Recently Congress enacted a law that requires every public school in the nation to teach students that "the use of illicit drugs and the unlawful possession and use of alcohol is (sic) wrong and harmful". This reminds me of the story, whether true or false, that the Illinois State Legislature once changed the value of pi, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle in the Euclidean plane, to 3.0. The difference this time is that only what may be taught is mandated rather than what is true. What remains the same, if we neglect the question of harmfulness for a moment, is that both judgments are transcendental and may not be legislated by man.

From a utilitarian viewpoint, "wrong" and "harmful" amount to the same thing, but it is not clear that the viewpoint of this law is entirely utilitarian. Nor is it clear whether the law means that drugs are entirely harmful, in which case no one would use them, or that the harm merely outweighs the good. The question of harmfulness (unless moral harmfulness is meant) presumably belongs to medicine, which is an inexact science and cannot supply answers to all such questions. One school of medical researchers claims to have evidence that marijuana, for example, is harmful; another school refutes this evidence and presents contrary evidence that marijuana is exceptionally safe. When the truth has been discovered scientifically, such disputes tend to disappear. It is difficult to see how government or the schools can supply answers that science cannot supply. How is this dilemma to be hidden from inquisitive students?

Regarding right and wrong, two important questions are at stake here and neither of them is trivial: (1) May the state legislate right and wrong in the absence of a consensus? and (2) May the state legislate what is to be taught concerning right and wrong? It is not clear whether the subject of right and wrong belongs to ethics or to morality, if ethics and morality are at all different. In my lexicon, ethics pertains preponderantly to respect for truth and morality pertains to behavior. Most moral decisions are religious decisions, therefore the legislation of morality is usually a violation of separation of church and state.

Many may object that the state legislates right and wrong all the time. For example, the state forbids murder. Without getting into all of the philosophical considerations that obtain in the banning of murder, I may safely say that most people who commit it allow that it is wrong. On the other hand, we have about twenty-five million Americans who use illegal drugs and a sizable percentage of them do not allow that it is wrong. On the contrary, many insist that it is wrong for the state to repress their natural inclinations and, in some cases, what they claim are God-given rights and, yes, even duties.

Regarding teaching that using drugs is wrong and harmful, one must distinguish between teaching both sides of an open question, i.e., a question under dispute, and teaching which side is correct. When the state legislates which side of an open question is to be taught, either it is legislating what is true, which is totalitarian, or it is denying the necessity of teaching truth, which is unethical. Perhaps ethics may be legislated without violating separation of church and state, but the state may not legislate bad ethics, i.e., an ethic that does violence to truth.

If drugs are wrong independently of context, teachers must show why they are wrong or students will ask questions that cannot be answered without gross distortions of truth. For example, if a brilliant artist used drugs to create a masterpiece, the students must be told that the importance of creating a masterpiece is overwhelmed by the importance of the damage to the artist's health, however slight, and the importance of the artist breaking a law. This will be especially difficult to do if the artist, who may have been Picasso, lived a long life or lived in a country where - or at a time when - the substances were legal. If the students are discouraged from asking questions, the schools will be reinforcing stupidity.

If taking marijuana to treat glaucoma is legal, then taking marijuana under other circumstances may be wrong only because it is illegal. Also, the law seems to say that drinking alcohol (in moderation?) is wrong only when it is unlawful. Paraphrasing Bertrand Russell: To appeal to the law to invalidate an act that otherwise would be good is to impute evil to the law.

But, the law has proved to be evil on numerous occasions. The law once required the return of runaway slaves. Nowadays, the law requires an innocent family to be turned out of its home if a visitor is found with illegal drugs. Therefore, to ask a student to believe that the use of a drug is wrong simply because it is illegal is asking too much.

Whether one desires a drug-free society or not, one ought to deplore this law and take appropriate action to have it repealed. It is guaranteed to have no effect on many, to stultify the education of many more, to drive the astute further into rebellion, to provide additional justification for taking drugs, to discredit further the educational process, and to diminish what little respect the law still enjoys.

Houston, Texas

November 27, 1990

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