The harm of drug trafficking: Is there room for serious debate?

In every society there are some acts considered beyond the pale. They are deemed so inherently harmful that they must be criminalized with severe sanctions. Such acts typically include violent deeds like murder, torture, and sexual assault. These core offences are held to have "manifest criminality"; they are so wrong that it seems absurd to consider the moral legitimacy or practical merits of their prohibition. The legitimacy of their criminalization is not a matter up for debate. Illicit-drug trafficking is often considered to be one of these core criminal offences; however, it is not self-evident that the state's criminalization of drug trafficking is either morally legitimate or practically reasonable. I want to suggest that there is room for a reasoned debate on the moral legitimacy and practical merits of its prohibition and on possible alternatives to lengthy prison sentences for drug traffickers. In the first section of this paper, I analyze possible justifications for the criminalization of human activities. Next, I outline the history of the prohibition of drug trafficking, tracing the evolution of its legal status from state-sponsored to criminal, and its social construction from acceptable to immoral to harmful. Finally, I briefly reflect on the nature and severity of the harm caused by drug trafficking. In doing so I will attempt to disentangle the harm caused by trafficking from the harm caused by its prohibition. My aim is not to suggest substantive answers to the problem of drug trafficking but to provide a prolegomenon to spark further research and debate.
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