Image credit to kushmagazine.com.
The late Peter McWilliams (August 5, 1949 – June 14, 2000) was known for a number of popular self-help books such as You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought, but was also the author of a major volume on consensual crimes. Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society1 exhaustively covers and rebuts many arguments for prohibition of various activities widely considered victimless crimes. Among others, this includes violations of the drug prohibition laws, and McWilliams provides related criticism and history of alcohol prohibition.
Part II of the book exhaustively details the numerous flaws and harms of laws against consensual activities in no less than 16 chapters. Part IV is entitled “Consensual Crimes and the Bible,” and argues that criminalizing such activities is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus according to the Gospels. McWilliams contends that laws against consensual activities are mainly derived from erroneous interpretations of scripture, and that, erroneous or not, religious judgments have no place in the criminal law. Another 13 chapters in Part V address particular consensual crimes, including not only drug offenses but gambling, homosexuality, and suicide, to name just a few.
Every single page of this book has a text box with a relevant quote from a source other than McWilliams, a significant achievement for a nearly 800-page text. His points are often made with well-chosen quotes from others, although these are mostly omitted from this article. Particularly interesting among these is a lengthy conversation between Professor Michael S. Gazzaniga and conservative commentator William F. Buckley discussing the actual effects of crack and cocaine, in contrast to media hysteria on the subject.2
Most of the arguments made in the book are probably already familiar to readers, such as the high financial cost of enforcing laws against consensual crimes, their unconstitutional nature, the burden on (and corruption of) the justice system, and the harms to civil liberties. The list continues for quite some time, although they are all conveniently summarized in the introduction.
Peter McWilliams was arrested in 1997 on charges related to medical marijuana, the use of which he vocally supported. In 1998 he gave a speech advocating for the subject before the Libertarian National Convention, in which he identified himself as a libertarian and praised the party with comments such as “Libertarians are the only politicians with moral values.” He died in 2000 at the age of 50 after being denied medical marijuana by order of a federal judge. He had found marijuana to be the only effective treatment for AIDS-related nausea. William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative magazine National Review, had been a personal friend of McWilliams and published an article discussing his life and the senseless cause of his death.
The following quotes all come from Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do.
“The one idea behind the book is this: You should be allowed to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don’t physically harm the person or property of another.” (1)
“Yes, if we harm ourselves it may emotionally harm others. That’s unfortunate, but not grounds for putting us in jail. If it were, every time we stopped dating person A in order to date person B, we would run the risk of going to jail for hurting person A. If person B were hurt by our being put in jail, person A could be put in jail for causing person B hurt. This would, of course, hurt person A’s mother, who would see to it that person B would go to jail. Eventually, we’d all end up in jail.” (2)
“No example is clearer than Jesus saving the adulteress from being stoned. At risk to his own life, he got involved (he could have walked away) and saved someone from being punished for a consensual crime that he personally taught was a sin. … Even Jesus, who met the criterion of “no sin,” and could have thrown the first stone, did not.” (499-500)
“That’s the trouble, of course: we have taken sins out of God’s domain, where they can be forgiven, and put them in the domain of law, where they can only be plea-bargained.” (18)
“Although many people [by 1880] needed the drug daily, as long as they were able to get the drug, morphine addicts functioned normally in society. The idea here is that most addictions are only troublesome when the addictive substance is taken away.” (523)
“…most of the negative effects people associate with heroin addiction (premature aging, ill health…) come not from the heroin, but from the impure substances used to cut the heroin. … While the most addictive of all illegal substances, it is seldom deadly, and the primary harm [it causes] is due to its illegality.” (524-525)
“As long as people regulate their use…to avoid “burn-out,” there is nothing intrinsically more addictive or harmful about mainlining amphetamines or smoking crack than there is in cocaine or amphetamines themselves. This is not to say that they are not addictive—cocaine and amphetamines are, although less addictive than tobacco or opiates—but to single out “crack” as though it were some newly discovered instant addicter and destroyer of humanity is a gross misrepresentation.” (526)
“Two of the basic common-sense rules of personal behavior are: (1) Make sufficient investigation before taking part in anything and (2) If you consent to do something, you are responsible for the outcome. Laws against consensual activities undermine both rules of responsibility.” (262)
“If someone is in a bad relationship with a substance, and you take the substance away, the person will find a new substance and enter into a bad relationship with it. There seems to be something in people who are in a bad relationship that requires—nay, demands—a bad relationship. The substance is secondary…People who stop smoking, for example, will sometimes put on weight.” (57-58)
“For example, in 1974, Dr. Peter Bourne, who later became President Carter’s drug policy advisor, called cocaine “the most benign of illicit drugs currently in widespread use.” Today it is widely believed that if you come within even a block of cocaine, it will do such immediate and irreparable harm to your mental functioning that you will become one of those people who actually believes that those little buttons you push to change the light at a crosswalk are actually connected to something.” (81)
1. The text can be accessed for free here.
2. The excerpt is from the Feb. 5, 1990 issue of National Review.