Why are recreational drugs illegal? The ban on these drugs leads to organized crime, difficult and expensive law enforcement, a large burden on our court system and a large prison population. All of this to prevent people from doing what we think is harmful to them (even though they might not think so)?
John Gray argues that it’s because Western humanists believe everyone can be happy:
Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfillment is found not in daily life but escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.
Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible — that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Socieities founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.
If people choose to get high from drugs, it is a challenge to the humanist ideal that we all can be happy. We do not like to see things that make us question our view of the world. We thrive on self-deception, and resent people who show us we are deceived. For example, we like poor people concentrated into small areas so that we can drive around them without seeing them. We also convince ourselves that it’s their fault that they are not successful (“if only they had worked hard and cared about their education, they could have been successful.”). We do not want to admit that success is mostly determined by the birth lottery (both the gene and environment lottery), because then we might have to feel bad about the living conditions of others.
However, this explanation does not seem sufficient. Why is there such a huge sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine? In August, President Obama signed a new drug law that reduces the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. As Robin Hanson points out, bans are often a way to show our disdain for certain groups:
It is common, for example, to require that candidates be locally-resident citizens above a certain age and without felony convictions….This paternalism seems plausibly explained as a status move: we disrespect certain groups by declaring them ineligible to run for office, and we elevate eligible groups in contrast. For this purpose, it doesn’t really matter that there wouldn’t be much chance of us electing the ineligible, even if they were allowed.
This paternalism-as-status-marker story fits with free speech being a status marker, and with many regulatory asymmetries, such as being more concerned about teen pregnancy than 35+ pregnancy, teen drivers more than elderly drivers, and drug/alcohol use of the poor more than the rich.
Since crack use is more prevalent in poorer neighborhoods than in richer neighborhoods, relative to powder cocaine use, the tougher sentences is a way of showing our disdain for poor people.
In addition, upper class drug users are more likely to have the means to hide their drug use from the public (picture rich people doing lines of cocaine at a party). If people are using drugs to escape from daily life, we’d rather not know about it. So we have stronger penalties for people who do it in front of us (picture the poor drug addict passed out on the steps of a building).