01/13/2014 06:45 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2015

A Conservative Argument for Harm Reduction

Last year the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition surprised the nation by working with conservative legislators to pass two new drug policy laws in their state. But although the harm reduction philosophy of "meeting people where they are at" is sometimes at odds with conservatives' stricter approach to drug use, the alliance shouldn't have come as a surprise. In fact, the two ideologies frequently align by emphasizing personal responsibility, fiscal prudence, and the value of human life at all stages.

Like conservatism, the harm reduction philosophy stresses that people should have the right to do what they wish with their own bodies and to assume the responsibility for those decisions. Take alcohol, for example. Under our current laws, people can choose to be responsible or irresponsible with alcohol. Many choose not to drink at all. Others drink only in social situations or on weekends. And for some, alcoholism may be a lifelong battle against a disease that threatens to take everything from them. But it is their battle to fight, win or lose. Harm reductionists and conservatives would both agree it is not the government's job to interfere unless the person poses a threat to others, such as through drunk driving or violence while under the influence. Even then, it is the act of recklessness or violence for which the person might be punished, not for the act of drinking. Arresting everyone who drank, regardless of how much, how often, or whether they posed a risk to others, would mean costly arrests, imprisonment, court arraignments, lawyers, appeals, and other expenses that ultimately fall on the taxpayer. More importantly it would mean unnecessary government involvement in a personal matter. And yet this is exactly what we've done with drugs. In the United States we arrest everyone for the use of certain drugs, regardless of how much they use, how often, or whether that use puts others at risk. Since the 1980s when President Reagan adopted a zero tolerance policy on drug use, we have built more prisons, upped our law enforcement quotas, and poured money into the bottomless pit that is the court system. We've spent more than $60 billion since the so-called War on Drugs began under President Nixon, yet drugs are cheaper and more plentiful than ever before. A conservative might call this wasteful government spending. So would a harm reductionist.

"Any policy that inhibits freedom of choice, and costs the government more tax dollars is deeply flawed and unacceptable to a good conservative," says Aleq Boyle, National Director for Civic Society America. "We have endured several generations of a deeply flawed expensive and failed policies related to "Drug Wars" and have only created false economies of private prisons, poorly focused law enforcement directives, and we have increased the social and health burdens upon families and victims in the name of 'justice.'"

Fear has played a large role in the continuation of our costly, ineffective drug policies; it's a lucrative business for anyone looking to sell news stories or win votes. Fear of drugs and people who use them have caused us to allow government interference in our personal lives and also to neglect another great conservative tenet, the sanctity of human life. Arguably, to be pro-life is to believe in the innate value and potential of all people, yet society is often quick to dismiss drug users as "worthless" or "undeserving" unless they get clean. We don't do this for any other behaviors. We don't say people with anger issues are worthless unless they stop being angry. We don't say people who are overweight deserve misery unless they get thin. While drugs can cause great harm, who among us doesn't have a habit or personality trait that is at times harmful to ourselves and those around us? It's up to each of us to work on self-improvement, but we are still valuable people during the process, even if we fail.

Thanks in part to greater public awareness about the drug war, Americans are beginning to wake up to the inconsistencies in our national drug policy. Some states have changed their laws to emphasize treatment over incarceration or life over death by overdose. And in many, such as North Carolina, harm reductionists and conservatives have worked together to make these changes. Harm reduction is not about being "soft on drugs," nor about reducing the consequences of drug use. It's about allowing people the liberty to make their own choices about what they put in their bodies and to take responsibility for those choices. It's about exercising restraint when it comes to excessive government spending on prisons and courts. It's about believing in the value and potential of every human being no matter where they are on the drug use continuum. Some might say the harm reductionists and conservatives have finally found common ground. But I think the similarities were there all along.