When a man admits to having murdered an innocent person ten years ago, he is arrested and tried. He’s held accountable. This man is just as guilty when he admitted to the crime as he was immediately after he committed it. It doesn’t matter how long ago the crime occurred—murder is wrong, always and forever.
When people admit to having used or bought illicit drugs ten years ago, they aren’t arrested and tried. No investigations are opened. I bet hardly anyone would say they ought to pay for their crimes according to how the law is written—prison, fines, etc. I’ve never heard even drug prohibitionists make this claim.
But that’s odd. If buying and using drugs really is wrong and ought to be punishable by law, shouldn’t violators be guilty for as long as they live? Shouldn’t they be held accountable for their actions? Why exempt them and not other admitted criminals?
This discrepancy exists because no one, not even drug prohibitionists, actually believes that using and selling drugs warrants retribution from the perspective of justice as a universal and absolute concept. They might think it’s stupid or morally wrong, but it’s categorically different from theft and murder. They know this, so they withhold the rules in certain situations—when it seems practical.
But this makes drug prohibition all the more infuriating. It exposes it as just a way some people choose to try and eliminate drugs from their lives. People who don’t want to see it and don’t want other people doing it. So they lock up people who do. For them, it seems practical.
This doesn’t address the many economic problems with prohibition, but it proves, I think, that prohibitionists use the force of law to achieve ends other than protection of life and property. They use the law to impose their preferences on other people, ruining lives in the process.
I’ll close with a thought experiment. Imagine Jake.
Jake just arrived in the United States. Where he came from, marijuana was legal. He bought it and used it every day. So when he finds a marijuana dealer on the streets of New York, he buys. But this “dealer” was actually an undercover cop.
Jake is arrested and put in jail. He is tried and found guilty. He is sentenced to three months in prison. He loses all hope of ever finding legitimate employment again.
Is this fair to Jake? Perhaps you say he should have known the law, but perhaps he did research the law and simply missed the part about drugs. Perhaps he had every intention of being a law-abiding citizen. Now his life is ruined because of an honest mistake.
It’s not fair. Not in any world.
But I bet you’d say murder and stealing are different. If Jake murdered someone or stole something, he’d be guilty. Any other verdict would be unfair. It doesn’t matter if he knew it was wrong, because murder and stealing is everywhere, always wrong.
Why does this dissonance exist? Why do we think about drug law enforcement differently than enforcement of laws regarding murder and stealing? Because petty drug crimes aren’t really crimes against anyone. Everyone, including drug prohibitionists, know this.