Tuesday, May 25, 2010

President Obama's high school drug use: how does it effect his authority today?

Gene Healy of the Cato Institute cleverly questions President Obama's moral authority to oppose drug law reforms that would stop prosecuting people who use drugs, writing in the Washington Examiner.
But he frames this in an exaggerated way:

The president lacks the moral authority to lock people up for behavior he engaged in as a young man.
First, this cannot be the moral standard for law enforcement personnel in general. If a teenage boy engaged in shoplifting, vandalism, drunk driving, and other legal violations, that boy now an adult does not lack the moral authority to arrest or prosecute teenagers or adults for those crimes, now recognizing the wrongfulness of those acts.

Second, the President is not actually locking up anybody. The enforcement of the law is the responsibility of law enforcement officers, and we might be upset if the President announced that he was not going to enforce laws that we think make sense.

However, the key point is that using drugs is not wrongful. No person is injured. No one is endangered, other than oneself -- and the danger could be compared to skiing, sky diving, mountaineering. Using drugs is not the failure to do a duty like paying taxes. The state lacks the moral authority to punish this conduct.

This does not mean that drug use in the wrong circumstances, such as when operating a vehicle, or when one has a duty or responsibility to be sober, is not an offense. Improper drug use is a special case. Of course, our drug laws are not written to prosecute those special cases, and most prosecutions for drug possession have nothing to do with such special cases.

There is no moral authority for arresting or prosecuting a person for conduct that is not wrongful -- whether the President did those things in the past or not. Perhaps what we need to recognized is that Obama's comments about his adolescent drug use acknowledge that absence of wrongfulness. That is what is troubling now that his Administration wants to continue to support morally unjustifiable prosecutions.

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