Brief Review


Our Right to Drugs: The Case for a Free Market, by Thomas Szasz, New York: Praeger, 199 pages, $19.95.

Looking through Thomas Szasz's new book on drug policy, you may be surprised to find a chapter subtitled, "The Lie of Legalization." Rest assured that the iconoclastic psychiatrist has not been won over by the drug warriors. Rather, he is making an important point in a characteristically provocative way: The term legalization implies that people need permission from the government to ingest certain chemicals. But in a free society the government cannot grant rights or legislate permission; it can only enact and repeal prohibitions.

This is not merely a semantic issue. As Szasz notes, most of those who favor "legalization" are actually pushing only for modification of the many regulations controlling drug use. They usually do not even address the issue of mandatory prescription. The central insight of Our Right to Drugs is that laws pertaining to cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and other recreational drugs should be viewed in the context of a legal system that bans self-medication and gives a favored few the authority to control access to a host of useful substances.

Although Our Right to Drugs overlaps somewhat with Szasz's 1973 book, Ceremonial Chemistry (which explored the symbolic significance of drug users as scapegoats), its focus is more legal and philosophical than anthropological or sociological. Szasz explains how Americans, early in this century, gradually lost the right of self-medication. He examines the implications of this profound change in the legal approach to drugs. "If given a choice between the freedom to choose what to ingest and what politician to vote for, few if any would pick the latter," he writes. Yet most Americans would rank voting as among their most important rights while not even recognizing a right to use drugs.

Szasz discusses the drug laws in stark terms, exposing their essence. His style, as usual, is unapolegetically polemical, often sarcastic. But Szasz is not simply taking cheap swipes at drug warriors. There is always a deeper point, especially when he probes the use and abuse of language.

For example, Szasz notes that tens of thousands of people are injured and killed each year by various kinds of equipment. "Why do we not speak of 'ski abuse' or a 'chain saw problem?'" he asks, and then suggests an answer: We adapt to the risks associated with skis and chain saws, rather than trying to eliminate them.

Szasz is similarly incisive in his discussion of mandatory drug treatment: "We do not call convicts 'consumers of prison services,' or conscripts 'consumers of military services'; but we call committed mental patients 'consumers of mental health services,' and paroled addicts 'consumers of drug treatment services.' We might as well call drug traffickers—conscripted by the former drug czar William Bennett for beheading—'consumers of guillotine services.'"

Writing like this is not likely to convert any drug warriors, but it should stimulate discussion among the undecided. And for those who already agree with Szasz, it's certainly fun to read.