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[Reprinted by permission of Liberty]
Szasz, T. Limbaugh's disease. Liberty, 17: 15-16 (December), 2003.

Limbaugh's Disease

Thomas Szasz

Rush Limbaugh has been outed as a secret drug user and gone off to rehab. Will he learn anything from his plight?

Exposed as an illegal user of "legal" (prescription) drugs, Rush Limbaugh has declared that he is an "addict" and said that he would check himself into a "treatment" center.

I oppose the war on drugs. I regret when anyone gets injured by it. It will be interesting to see whether Limbaugh learns anything from his plight. When he returns to the airwaves -- assuming he'll be able to do his job when he is "healthy" and not "suffering from drug addiction" -- will he reassume his role as a bigoted drug warrior or will he realize that he has been waging a war against liberty, responsibility, and the rule of law and act accordingly?

I have long been on record opposing drug prohibition in any form. I believe that we have a constitutional right to use any drug we please, that (bad) habits are not diseases, and that efforts to change habits are not treatments. Twenty-nine years have elapsed since the first publication of my book, Ceremonial Chemistry. Since then, the cold war has ended and the political geography of our world has been transformed. But the war on drugs is still raging. The combatants -- drug providers and drug prohibitionists alike -- have too much to gain from their participation in the hostilities to end it.

Millions of people the world over continue to grow, manufacture, smuggle, sell, buy, ingest, inhale, and inject illegal drugs, and other millions persecute and prosecute them as participants in a medical-heretical depravity. The pervasive criminalization and medicalization of drug use transformed self-medication into "drug abuse" and created a political-economic drama with a vast cast of characters whose roles require that they engage in violence, endangering participants and non-participants in the drug war alike.

Despite this vast, worldwide turmoil, few people seem to question the premises used to justify waging a war on drugs or the morality of the means with which it is pursued. This is because the war on drugs is but one manifestation, albeit a very dramatic one, of the great moral contests of our age -- the struggle between two diametrically opposed images of man: between man as responsible moral agent, "condemned" to freedom, benefiting and suffering from the consequences of his actions; and man as irresponsible child, unfit for freedom, "protected" from its risks by agents of the omnicompetent state.

In the cold war, this struggle was cast as the conflict between the "hazards" of capitalism and the "security" of communism -- the production and distribution of goods and services regulated by the market or the state. In the drug war, the struggle is cast as the conflict between persons opposing laws aimed at protecting adults from themselves and persons supporting such protections as requirements for the security of society.

So long as a drug remains outside of the human body -- in the field, the laboratory, or the store -- it is an inert substance. No drug poses a danger to the person who does not use it. As soon as the possession of a drugs is made illegal, however, it becomes dangerous -- not pharmacologically, but juristically and socially. It is an abuse of language to call such a drug "dangerous," as if it were a criminal; and it is folly to declare a "war" on it. War can be fought only by some people against some other people. The war on drugs is thus a battle fought by governments, firstly against their own citizens, and secondly against foreigners who grow or sell substances which the drug warriors have chosen to prohibit. For nearly a century, the governments of the civilized world -- led by the United States -- have waged a crusade against certain drugs.

Psychoactive drugs are as old as civilization. Prior to the twentieth century, deploying the criminal law to prevent a person from ingesting whatever substance he wanted would have been considered an absurd usurpation of his most elementary right, a right far more basic than his right to vote. Yet, today, the psychoactive drugs people want the most are illegal, while the psychoactive drugs they do not want at all are often forcibly administered to them, especially if they are diagnosed as mentally ill.

Although the war on drugs is typically viewed as a medical or public health effort to prevent illness or maintain health, actually it is a quasi-religious, ceremonial struggle to rid society of evil -- the forbidden drug standing as a scapegoat for a variety of the problems that beset modern societies. To understand the popular support for this war, it is necessary to keep in mind that the scapegoat's social function is symbolic. Persecuting scapegoats "works" not because it protects society from harm, but because it reaffirms the group's core values and reassures people that its guardians are doing their job. The scapegoaters of the pharmacopoeia have been at their job since the beginning of the last century. The result is not drug peace but an unending drug war, accompanied by the popular belief that the medical-criminal control of drug use is a "scientific problem," and the popular acceptance of punishments for violating such controls far more severe than those meted out for violent crimes others. The minimum penalties imposed by U.S. federal law for the following offenses tell the story: Burglary with a gun -- 2.0 years; kidnapping -- 4.2 years; rape -- 5.8 years; attempted murder with harm -- 6.5 years; possession of LSD -- 10.1 years.

A hundred years ago, a person in Limbaugh's position could have bought Laudanum (tincture of opium) and obtained pain relief legally and without endangering his hearing. Limbaugh, if rumors are right, bought Vicodin (a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen) illegally. As a result, he may have lost his hearing and is now stigmatized as a drug law violator.

History is not likely to remember Limbaugh for his support of conservative causes, regardless of how mistaken they might be. However, given his immense influence, history might well remember him if, freed from "rehab," he would oppose the war on drugs with the same vigor with which has supported it. His achievements while "on drugs" ought to convince anyone -- especially him -- that drug prohibition rests, just as did alcohol prohibition, on equal parts of deception, self-deception, and hypocrisy.

The twenty-first amendment solved America's "alcohol problem." Repeal of drug prohibition -- which, significantly, requires no constitutional amendment -- would solve our "drug problem."

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