What good is it to me, after all, if there is an authority always busy to see to the tranquil enjoyment of my pleasures and going ahead to brush all dangers away from my path without giving me even the trouble to think about it, if that authority, which protects me from the smallest thorns on my journey, is also the absolute master of my liberty and of my life?
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Consider the following scenario. The Virginia Legislature decides that universities receiving state funding should no longer tolerate homosexual activity on their campuses. They pass a law stating that universities will lose their funding by December 1st unless they: 1) clearly prohibit such activity on campus and at school functions, and 2) threaten to expel any student and fire any faculty or staff member who violates the policy. After all, homosexual activity is a felony in Virginia, so why shouldn't the government do everything it can to make sure that our young people and those who serve as their role models "just say no" to gay sex?
This scenario is less far-fetched than you might imagine. Virginia's anti-sodomy law is not some ancient statute that is accidentally still on the books. The legislature rewrote it in 1981 to clarify the previously vague phrase "crime against nature" and to differentiate between the more heinous crime of forced sodomy (a felony punishable by life imprisonment) and the still heinous but not quite so awful crime of consensual sodomy (a mere "class 6" felony). The Virginia Supreme Court decided a few years ago that it is not a violation of privacy for police to secretly observe and videotape the activity in a locked stall of a public bathroom if it helps them to eliminate homosexual activity there. Gay bars are illegal in Virginia under a clause that says that no bar shall be granted a license to serve alcohol if it is a known meeting place for gamblers, prostitutes, drug dealers, homosexuals, or other criminals.
Getting back to my hypothetical university, suppose that the administration caves in and has one of its lawyers draw up a new "campus sexual activity policy" that strictly prohibits homosexual sex on campus and at campus events. What advice would you give to the students, faculty and staff? Should gay people give in and abstain from having sex? And if they refuse, should their nongay roommates and friends be required to turn them in? Should RAs and RFs be expected to police the dorms and enforce the policy?
My answer to all of these questions is "no." I firmly believe that government has no right to interfere in any activity that takes place in private between consenting adults. Sexual activity, for example, may be restricted by government only if it takes place in public, or one of the partners does not consent to the activity, or a child is involved.
I do not, however, advocate capriciously disobeying laws. I broke many laws in my youth, but in recent years I have tried to be more careful about which laws I break. Driving on a public street or highway, for example, is a privilege, not a right. When you disobey traffic regulations, you endanger not only yourself, but also any others who are driving on the same road. Even driving on private property is not an entirely private activity if gasoline is burned, because such activity has an effect on the environment and the availability of gasoline.
I could find no rational justification for speeding. The 55mph speed limit was intended partially to improve highway safety but mostly to reduce national consumption of gasoline. What right do I have to endanger others, to increase air pollution, to increase our dependence on foreign oil, and to increase the probability of another Exxon-Valdez disaster by driving faster than 55? None. As a result, I now drive 55. I am the only person I know who drives 55. But my gas mileage has improved significantly.
What about underage drinking? According to my principle, the government has no authority to regulate drinking that takes place in private among consenting adults. The key question is whether those under 21 are adults. I think that most Americans feel as I do that the age of 18 is a reasonable threshold to set for a legal definition of adulthood. Eighteen-year-olds can vote, can be drafted, are tried as adults when they commit crimes, and are expected to be financially responsible for themselves. It makes no sense to treat them as adults in every respect but this one.
Thus, I believe that government has no authority to prohibit drinking done in private by those who are 18 or older. The primary motivation for raising the drinking age to 21 was the reduction of highway deaths due to teenage drinking. While I think the goal is desirable and the approach is logical, I do not believe that the ends justify the means. It is perfectly reasonable for government to outlaw drunk driving and to vigorously pursue violators, but it may not infringe on personal liberty to do so.
What about the use of drugs? Again, according to my principle the government has no authority to regulate what consenting adults choose to do in private. No matter how dire the consequences of drug use might be for an individual, the government may not make the decision for an individual.
The counterargument is that drug use affects more than just an individual because it generates crime and addicts. The crime argument is almost entirely circular because drug laws generate most such crime. If drugs were decriminalized, drug users and drug dealers (except those who sell to children) would no longer be criminals, and the violence associated with drug dealing would disappear when the dealers found themselves unable to compete with cheaper and higher quality drugs being sold along with beer and wine at your local Safeway.
The addict argument is more complex. If you are committed to the notion of a welfare state, then you might very well be concerned about the possibility that individuals will become addicted to drugs and eventually become a burden on your taxes. I would personally rather die than accept government welfare, so I find it disturbing that people use this argument to prevent me from using addictive drugs.
I am even more troubled, however, by the fact that this argument has no practical bounds. If recreational rock-climbing is dangerous, why can't the welfare state ban it so that it does not have to support its victims? If eating greasy hamburgers and candy is bad for your health, why can't the welfare state ban them so that it does not have to pay the associated medical costs? Once you accept the addict argument, you grant the government unlimited power to limit your personal freedom. As a result, I reject all such arguments. In fact, I think this predicament is one of the best arguments against the notion of a welfare state.
Thus, I disagree in principle with those who want to control highly-addictive substances, but I understand the logic behind their reasoning. I feel that the federal government, however, in its "just say no" campaign against drugs violates not only principle, but common sense as well.
Most absurd of all is the government's "zero tolerance" of all drugs, independent of their particular properties. Crack cocaine is taken to be the prototypical drug in setting drug policy, which makes about as much sense as deciding how to treat British citizens by assuming they are all like Jack the Ripper.
Consider, for example, marijuana. One if its most desirable qualities is that it can be grown at home. Is there a better way to undercut the "international drug cartel" and reduce violent crime associated with drug dealing than to have individuals produce their own supply of drugs? Yet the government uses the crime associated with crack and crack dealing as a way to justify its campaign against marijuana users and growers.
My own personal favorite drug is a substance called MDA. MDA has been nicknamed "the love drug" because its primary effects are extreme euphoria and a sense of liking everyone. It has been extensively studied, it is not addictive, no detrimental long-term side effects have been recorded in the 50 years it has been studied, it lessens rather than heightens feelings of anxiety and paranoia, and it does not bring about significant loss of self-control. About the most dangerous thing you might do under the influence of MDA that you wouldn't do otherwise would be to hug or kiss someone (in fact, the US Army experimented with MDA because they hoped they could use it to incapacitate an enemy by sneaking it into their water supply).
I can find no logic in a policy that outlaws MDA and leaves as the one and only legal mind-altering substance a drug that is highly addictive, that causes significant loss of self-control to the point of loss of consciousness, that increases violent behavior, that can have associated memory loss, and that kills brain cells. As a drug, alcohol is one of the worst. I can understand why its unique history in this country makes it virtually impossible to outlaw, but why wouldn't alcohol's negative properties motivate the government to make more desirable alternatives like MDA more readily available, in the hopes that people would use MDA instead of alcohol?
Even though I grant that there is some logic in outlawing addictive substances, there is no reasonable justification for outlawing the nonaddictive drugs such as marijuana, MDA, LSD, mushrooms, and ecstasy. The government is using faulty reasoning when it justifies campaigns against such drugs by citing the problems associated with crack cocaine. And to have the only legal alternative be an addictive drug that is as dangerous as alcohol is beyond faulty reasoning, it's lunacy.
That whenever any form of government become destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
In my previous article I described why I believe that government has no right to regulate what adults do in private, meaning that laws outlawing the use of drugs and laws outlawing drinking for those 18-21 have no authority. In this article, I discuss my reaction to the new campus drug and alcohol policy.
First of all, it would be nice to see a copy, but Stanford doesn't seem willing to make available to me a policy that threatens to fire me and that I've lived under for the past month. I called the office of its author, Susan Hoerger, but was told by her secretary that she didn't want to distribute the new policy to "everyone on campus" and that I should get a copy through my department chair. I have contacted the chairman's office several times since then, but they have no copy of the policy either.
I have an odd combination of reactions to what I do know about the policy. First, while I do not recognize the government's authority to limit drug and alcohol use of citizens 18 or over, I do think that Stanford as a private institution has the right to expel students or fire staff for such behavior. I would try to convince members of the institution to behave otherwise, but I don't think I have an inviolable "right" to my job at Stanford.
But even though I think it is Stanford's prerogative to pass such a policy, I do not think it can succeed as an institution of higher learning if it does not encourage its students, faculty and staff to take responsibility for their own choices and if it does not afford each of them some sphere of privacy in which to function. In short, if Stanford becomes a regulatory institution and invades the privacy of its students, faculty and staff, it will ultimately deteriorate in its effectiveness as a university.
Most importantly, I think that students must feel that the privacy of dorm rooms on campus will not be violated. The university should be indifferent to any private activity taking place between consenting adults in a dorm room, even if that activity includes underage drinking or use of illegal drugs. I believe that this holds even for dorm parties and activity in dorm common areas, as long as everyone in the dorm feels comfortable about it. Similarly, the university has no business interfering with analogous activity in the home or apartment of a faculty or staff member, even if it happens to be on Stanford land.
Furthermore, Stanford should not limit what students, faculty and staff carry on their persons while on campus or at campus activities. I, for example, often carry illegal drugs in my backpack, and I refuse to work for an institution that wants to dictate what personal items I will carry around with me.
What bothers me most about the new policy is that it was not initiated because of any perceived problem, but as a reaction to coercion. The federal government has no idea of what is best for Stanford's residences and activities and I find their interference offensive. I am equally distressed by Stanford's response. For all of our talk about being courageous and experimenting with a new and better kind of university, we run for cover at the first sign of trouble and allow an external entity to make our decisions for us.
I do not think that the federal government would have made good on its threat if we failed to meet its standards. A similar showdown came in the summer of 1982. The Judge Advocate General of the Army wrote a letter to Harvard, Yale, Columbia, NYU, UCLA and Wayne State University warning them that their DOD funding would be cut off unless they stopped banning army recruiters from their law schools. Those schools refused to allow DOD recruiters on campus because the DOD openly discriminates against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The threat was made, the schools refused to change their policies, and nothing happened. Stanford missed the entire controversy because, cowering sheep that we are, at that time we didn't ban DOD recruiters (our law school now does ban them from their facilities, although the administration still uses the DOD threat as an excuse for allowing them into the CPPC).
In my personal life I've found that government most often accomplishes its goals by threats it never intends to carry out. For example, when I was recently banned from my Northern Virginia high school because I'm openly gay, I decided that it was time to challenge Virginia's anti-sodomy law. I presented myself for arrest at two different police stations, but they had no interest in arresting me (in fact, they refused to arrest me, even though they agreed that I was clearly guilty of a felony).
My advice regarding the new alcohol and drug policy is to defy it and to do so as openly as you are willing to do. I encourage students to insist on the right to decide whether they will drink or do drugs in their own dorm rooms. I encourage RAs and RFs to refuse to enforce this policy and to reserve the right to set the social tone for their own dorm. And I encourage faculty and staff to deny the university any right to dictate what they will do in their own homes and what they will carry with them on campus.
As for myself, I have done illegal drugs in the past and I will continue to do so. I have never taught class or held office hours while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but I have kept illegal drugs in my backpack while on campus, and I will do so in the future.
I know that my attitude about drugs will be shocking to many, especially given the recent success of anti-drug propaganda. I don't claim to know everything about drug use in America, but I know about my own life. On the positive side, drugs have provided many enjoyable and memorable experiences and my use of drugs has been an extremely important influence in my emotional, intellectual and spiritual development. As for negatives, I have not experienced any of the nightmares that supposedly go along with drugs. My greatest fear was the loss of conscious control, but in ten years of drug use I've never once experienced an uncontrollable lapse in awareness or judgement. As for the "dark spiral of drug addiction," I have had literally hundreds of friends who used illegal drugs, and not one of them has turned to a life of crime or become hopelessly addicted to drugs. As for drug dealers, I have been good friends with a half dozen of them, and none have been the least bit violent and all felt that selling drugs to children was immoral. In fact, I've had more interesting discussions about morality with drug dealers than I've ever had with Stanford administrators or government officials.
In conclusion, let me mention that one of the most important events in my development as a human being has been the realization that government has no business making my choices for me and the subsequent determination on my part to openly oppose any such encroachment. I realize that I might be arrested or fired and that nobody will care that I drove the speed limit while breaking the drug and sodomy laws, and I fully expect that any such hardship on my part would go mostly unnoticed. The only alternative is to surrender control over my future to a distant and alien power, and I do not understand how any self-respecting individual, or self-respecting institution for that matter, can possibly do so.