The Public Consequences of So-Called Private Choices


Should the decision to partake of illegal drugs become sacrosanct, now and forever?

Or to put it another way, are all moral choices, no matter how extreme, beyond the reach of the law because they involve private decisions on moral matters?

This is a good question.

There are political forces both on the left and on the right that would howl “Yes!” in response. “After all,” they would add, “to partake or not to partake is a matter of conscience, and conscience is sacred and conscience is private!”

They might even quote John Adams, who spoke of the divine right of conscience, or Thomas Jefferson, who spoke in terms of conscience being the voice of God within. They might remind us that both The Declaration of Independence and Holy Writ contemplated conscience as one of three great inalienable rights.

Who can argue with that? They would be correct. Then again, they would not. Conscience is sacred and private, agreed. But choice is an entirely different matter. The former ought to guide the latter and the latter the former, but conscience and choice are not synonymous, not by a long shot.

Webster defines conscience as “Internal or self-knowledge, or judgment of right and wrong; or the faculty, power or principle within us, which decides on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of our own actions and affections, and instantly approves or condemns them.”

Some writers call conscience the moral sense and consider it an original faculty of our nature. Christians might identify conscience, in part, as the light of Christ that lighteth every man which cometh into the world. They might also say that conscience can be enlarged, improved and guided – or restricted, distorted and hardened by environmental factors and the choices we make.

Yes, conscience is all about feelings, convictions, perceptions – things that are ours and ours alone – and they remain ours and ours alone so long as we don’t act upon them.

Choice, on the other hand, in the context of choosing to sell or take drugs, involves action. It is when we put our conscience to work – or fail to put it to work in a world filled with family, friends, neighbors, fellow workers, fellow citizens and complete strangers.

And here’s the key: Choices, unlike an un-acted-upon conscience, have consequences, public consequences. The consequences may be good, or neutral, or even inconsequential to anybody or anything (if they are of a minor nature), but when those consequences prove pernicious to the health, safety and prosperity of those around us – what began as sacred and private in the quiet corners of our conscience is now troublesome and very, very public.

One reader wrote me the following:

“In the case of illegal drug use, someone who is not harming anyone else, and not even responsible for anyone else, is threatened with incarceration – that is the kind of imposition of morality by force of law, rather than by peaceful persuasion, that I can’t support as a Christian or a libertarian.”

This is not a new argument. Many of us have heard it before. And although the reader is sincere, his position is naïve. Are we really supposed to believe that drug abusers hurt nobody but themselves, or that the effect is inconsequential to the health, safety and prosperity of the community?

Ask the parents, the spouses, the children, the relatives, the employers, the neighbors, the innocent strangers who have been betrayed, battered, bruised, robbed, raped and murdered by them. Ask the taxpayers, who assume the costs when families no longer will or can.

Millions of innocent people hurt physically, emotionally and economically due to the so-called private moral choices of drug abusers. Bear in mind:

  • Nearly one-half of substantiated child neglect and abuse are associated with drug abuse. (1)
  • Children whose parents abuse drugs are almost three times more likely to be abused and more than four times more likely to be neglected. (2)
  • Let’s put a number on that: Nearly 1 million cases per year (each case possibly involving several children) and approximately 1,200 deaths. (3)
  • Individuals with severe addictions commit an average of 63 crimes against their fellow citizens per year. (4)
  • Eighty percent of all crimes committed are committed under the influence of drugs, with 82 percent of U.S. prisoners having a history of drug or alcohol abuse. (5)
  • One-third of drug addicts are key players in spreading the deadly AIDS epidemic. (6)
  • Just over two-thirds of parents involved with the child welfare system need drug treatment. SSI is yet another matter. (7)
  • An unknown number of females and males are being raped after ingesting a set of new illicit drugs, GHB (liquid ecstasy), Rohypnol, and Ketamine (there are at least 12 others), where predators render their date or acquaintance unable to recall a sexual assault. Statistics are shaky because the presence of these drugs is hard to test, their history of abuse short, and their victims often clueless about trouble until well after the fact.
  • The President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2000 put the national price tag on the public effects of drug abuse from 1992 to 1998 at $870.4 billion. That is $150 billion per year by 1998 and rising – translating into $1,153 per taxpayer, $2,306 per two-income household annually. (8) Nearly a decade later, in 2007,  the price tag, according to The National Drug Intelligence Center, had exploded to $ 193 Billion in that year alone, a  64 percent annual jump, or $1890.20 per tax payer per year, and $3,781 per two-income household annually! (9)

Who says such decisions are private? Certainly not the victims!

The personal decision to abuse oneself with drugs, like so many other so-called private choices begets a public cost—a devastating public cost—one which destroys families, takes lives, subverts our nation’s values, and costs every American big bucks.

The question then ought not to be “Is there a public interest in discouraging and punishing illicit drug use?” —for there most certainly is—but only “How can we best fight the good fight while continuing to protect the liberties of law-abiding citizens?”

Steve Farrell is one of the original pundits at (1999–2008), the author of the highly praised inspirational novel Dark Rose, and Founder and Editor in Chief of  The Moral Liberal.


1. Childhelp USA. National Child Abuse Statistics, June 2002 (

2. Children’s Defense Fund. Child Abuse and Neglect Basics (

3. Ibid.

4. Gebelein, Richard S. The Rebirth of Rehabilitation: Promise and Perils of Drug Courts, U.S. Department of Justice, May 2000.

5. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population, Columbia University, 1998.

6. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of Drug Policy, the Grand Lodge Convention, Wednesday, July 9, 1997.

7.  Children’s Defense Fund. Child Abuse and Neglect Basics (

8. The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-1998 (
publications/pdf/economic_costs98.pdf). The study focuses on the costs of illicit drug use only.

  1. Drug abuse costs rival those of chronic diseases, report says (