How Do Drug Laws Affect Privacy?

Posted 09 Sep 2009


Drug laws and policy is a controversial topic. I wish only to address the privacy aspect of this topic, keeping my remarks independent of the policy issues, cost-benefit analysis of enforcement, health issues or morality issues that may attend it.

By doing this, we can evaluate the benefit or cost of drug laws as they relate to privacy and accurately value it against those other issues that are affected.  Also keep in mind that I do not encourage or advocate illegal or legal drug use.  I don't even like to take medicine when I am sick.  I average one or two doses of Dimetapp per year when I have a cold but that is it.

Recently, Mexico has decriminalized all major drugs for small personal use including marijuana, cocaine, meth and others. There are many other countries, mostly in Latin America and Europe, that have also decriminalized drugs to varying extents. How does this relate to privacy?


The United States has some of the most strict drug laws in the world and regularly enforces those laws through imprisonment. A violation of drug laws is often used as a pretext to search someone where there is no probable cause to search them otherwise.

Using this pretext the police and executive forces may stop individuals, search them, wiretap or use other methods to invade the privacy of individuals while acting with court approval. The behaviors that justify pretextual searches are often so broad and general that they include far more activities than those exclusively used by those who violate drug laws.

Almost every person in the United States has at some time engaged in behavior sufficient to justify a pretextual search. This gives government agents the power to search almost anyone they want. It is not only possible that the government may use drug laws as an excuse to invade the privacy of an innocent person, it is common.  The tools in the book How To Vanish can help protect you from unjustified pretextual searches before they occur.


Laws of prohibition always affect the level of privacy citizens have if they are used as a pretext to invade privacy. If any country that uses violation of drug laws as a pretext for search eliminates some of the drug laws, the privacy of its citizens will increase.

In all of those countries which have decriminalized some drugs, possession of large quantities of drugs, drug production and distribution are still illegal. This leaves open the pretext that major possession, production or distribution are still going on, thus justifying a search. This would be true as well were the US to decriminalize in a similar manner.

If the United States were to decriminalize small amounts of drugs for personal consumption, as has been done in other countries, it would eliminate some of the possible pretexts that exist to search innocent people. Thus the privacy of citizens in the US would increase. The benefits to privacy would be small were there to be similar decriminalization because many other pretexts exist.

To have much of an effect on privacy, more significant pretexts for searches need to be eliminated. This would include serious reforms, even full repeal of prohibition on consumption, possession, production and distribution of drugs. Removing the excuse to search removes the possible pretext for a search. Thus, there are fewer searches and fewer innocent people who are subject to the searches.


The removal of pretexts for search does not justify decriminalizing other activities such as murder or theft to increase the privacy of citizens. It is true that there are often innocent people whose privacy is invaded because they were caught up in an investigation of a crime like murder or theft. In those cases, a warrant to search the innocent individual is usually granted because there is probable cause to believe they are related to a specific, identifiable event; the crime committed.

With drug laws, there has often been no reported event to issue a search warrant, only that the individual fits the general profile of a drug user, seller, producer or distributor. Or sometimes there has been calls made to drug abuse hot lines in an attempt to help the individual. Police do not search people because they think they fit the general profile of a murderer and are from a source city for murderers. But this is true of drug laws, making them more appropriate for terminating prohibition than some other laws.


Ending the prohibition on all drugs, their use, sales, production and distribution will increase the privacy of people in the US. Any effort at decriminalization that falls short of a full end to prohibition will increase privacy in proportion to its breadth. This is a very controversial topic which affects many aspects of life for many people. There are probably strong beliefs, even among privacy minded people, which vary greatly.

I am curious about what you think about how drug laws affect privacy. Feel free to leave a comment on the topic. Please do not address the other issues that I have mentioned in the beginning of this post, such as public health or morality of drug use, as they are not directly relevant to this post.