Our Right To Drugs: The Case for a Free Market

Does a person have a right to take drugs, grow plants, and self-medicate in the privacy of their own home? In the book, Our Right to Drugs: The Case for a Free Market, Thomas Szasz points out obvious: people have taken drugs since time immemorial, they take drugs to make themselves feel better, induce unusual experiences, and to cure themselves of ailments. For the libertarian, this is common sense, for everyone else, this is heresy.

History of Drugs

Szasz wonders:

“Why has the use of ancient drugs become a matter of special social and political concern only in the twentieth century, and why especially in the United States?”1

Szasz points out, that for most of human history people have put plants (drugs) such as opium poppies, coca leaves, coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana into their body because they felt better when they took it. Drugs improved endurance, reduced pain, and induced unusual religious experiences. The primary use of drugs (plants) throughout history was not primarily for health reasons. Szasz maintains that people should have a right to put things in their body that makes them feel better – as defined by the user – regardless of the whether it makes them healthier. The right to ingest drugs is as fundamental as eating and drinking says, Szasz.

Szasz gives many examples of famous people who used drugs throughout the ages. Thomas Jefferson used opium to ease his pain towards the end of his life. Freud said that without smoking, life was not worth living and used cocaine to overcome depression. One of the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital was a surgeon who used morphine daily in high doses. President John F. Kennedy had his doctor injected him and his wife regular doses of amphetamines. And the list goes on.

Therapeutic State

Szasz points out that medicine has become the religion of our day. The Founding Fathers sought to prohibit religious authorities from involuntarily ruling other people’s lives, but they did not anticipate that medicine would become the religion of modern America. Because medicine and health have become the de facto state religion; the state tries to regulate a person’s body in the same way religious authorities try to regulate a person’s soul.

Szasz is fond of quoting Adolfo Body Casares to exemplify this point:

Well then, maybe it would be worth mentioning the three periods of history. When man believed that happiness was dependent on God, he killed for religious reasons. When he believed that happiness was dependent upon the form of government, he killed for political reasons…
After dreams that were too long, true nightmares… we arrived at the present period of history. Man woke up, discovered that which he always knew, that happiness is dependent upon health, and began to kill for therapeutic reasons…
When no one believed any longer in the politicians, it was medicine, with its amazing discoveries, that captured the imagination of the human race. It is medicine that has come to replace both religion and politics in our time. 2

Doctors have created what Szasz calls, monomedicine; a type of medicine controlled by a pharmacratic state. Prior to 1914, a person could purchase any substance they wanted. Since doctors lobbied for mandated prescription laws, doctors and the state became unified. A doctor can no longer recommend whatever substance they feel is most beneficial, they can only use chemicals authorized by state authorities. Because medicine is under state control, only one type of medicine allowed must be approved by the state; hence the term monomedicine under control of a pharmacracy. MD’s have become our high priests, while other types of medicine are scoffed at as quackery.

Responsibility

Szasz says the problem with drugs prohibition is not just with so-called illegal drugs. It is a problem with all drugs, including those that require a prescription. Requiring a prescription means mandating that competent adults must get a permission slip before putting substances in their body. He favors prescriptions in the true sense of the word – a recommendation by a professional. Those who do not know how to use drugs, and do not care to educate themselves would continue to go to a doctor to get a recommendation.

The reason that most people cannot accept drug use in our society is that it requires reliance on personal responsibility, which makes many people uneasy. But, Szasz points out that there are many things in life that require personal responsibility. Chainsaws, cars, electricity, fire, swimming pools, unhealthy food, the list is endless. When someone is in injured by a chainsaw, we do not speak of chainsaw-abuse.

Scapegoat

Szasz says the persecution of drug users provides society with, “bread and circuses”, and a useful scapegoat for both societal and personal problems. The term self-medication has become synonymous with “drug abuse” and “chemical dependency”. Szasz finds the use of such double-speak illuminating. He points back to a time in history when masturbation was considered “self-abuse” and considered a disease which caused insanity. So too, equivocating “self-medication” with “drug-abuse” is one of the latest misuses of language in an attempt to control others. It is an attempt to prevent individuals from asserting control over themselves and their bodies. For a therapeutic pharmacratic state, this is tantamount to heresy.

Further Reading and Listening

Fitting with the title, most of Szasz’s arguments in, Our Right to Drugs are aimed at a rights-based approach to a free market in drugs. For a more in-depth anthropological psycho-history of drugs, I recommend Szasz’s other work, Ceremonial Chemistry. Where, Our Right to Drugs, makes the case for a free market, Ceremonial Chemistry, attempts to explain the modern abhorrence with drugs by looking at the use of scapegoats throughout history.

For an entertaining listen on the history of drug prohibition in the US, I highly recommend Chris Calton’s, Historical Controversies Podcast. The first six episodes are devoted to the topic of drug prohibition in America.

Watch the videos below with Szasz about his book, Our Right to Drugs.


  1. Our Right to Drugs: The Case for a Free Market. Pg. 60. 
  2. Adolfo Bioy Casares, ‘Plan for an Escape to Carmelo’, New York Review of Books, April 10, 1986, p. 7. 

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