Saturday, June 26, 2010

The annual case for drug legalization

I believe it’s yet again time for a what must be at the very least an annual call to end the war on drugs and/or legalize drugs. I’ll use John Stossel's weekly column as a launching off point. I link to the version on the conservative site because there it’s generated a much more negative response than the version posted on the libertarian and libertine Reason. And I don’t mean to pick on the pro-drug war conservatives, but there's an inherent tension in conservatism between the ideology of limited government and the acceptance of traditional legal and social norms.

Rather than make the typical appeal that we own our own bodies and the drug war creates more social problems than it prevents, I thought I'd instead address the arguments of drug warriors and those opposed to legalization. What always gets me is the sheer ferocity of the responses to calls for drug legalization, as if the current state of drug prohibition was the natural order of things. Drug warriors never give a philosophical justification of why government should be allowed in this area of our lives, but not others. What we get are the sorts of arguments that would be thrown out in the most elementary philosophy classes, or, alternatively, a paranoia that legalized drug use will literally destroy America. What I've done here is provide responses to some of what seem to be typical responses to the calls for drug legalization.

If government can't protect us, why not legalize murder?

This is one of those inane comments that fails to differentiate between victimless crimes and crimes with victims. No one wants to eliminate crimes against persons or property because that's the most important reason we have government and law enforcement in the first place. The argument to legalize drugs is that ending the black market would help eliminate violent crime. No similar argument about reducing violence can be made in regards to legalized murder.

I don't want someone stoned out of their mind driving the bus!

Nor do I. I also don't want a drunk driving the bus either. Alcohol use and abuse is far more prevalent than other drug use, yet somehow, we manage to survive. Just because drugs are legal doesn't mean we want to let stoned people do things we don't let drunks do right now.

What about the drug users on the streets and in public parks!

Again, let's go back to alcohol. Drug legalization doesn't mean that communities would be required to turn their parks into drug dens. Communities don't have to allow shooting up in public any more than they have to allow open containers of alcohol.

Drug gangs won't just pack up and become upstanding citizens if drugs were legalized.

This is a better point and it's probably true to an extent. But one point should be obvious, based on simple economics. Drug gangs would not be better equipped to sell more drugs at lower prices than a giant retailer like Wal-Mart or a giant pharmacy chain like Walgreens or CVS. Drug gangs would be out of the drug business because they wouldn't be able to compete with corporate distribution networks and business models. Economics matters. Now yes, there would be a substantial number of former dealers out of a job so to speak. But how many drug dealers are violent criminals and how many are just poor kids taking a job that's slightly better and more prestigious than what they could do at McDonald's. (And how many are spoiled suburban kids who sell pot and pills?) Ultimately though, we want the police to round up violent criminals, whether they're part of the drug trade or not. Eliminating the drug trade eliminates the monetary incentive to violence.

What about the children and all the innocent victims of drug abuse?

I'll again return to the point about alcohol. Really though, your views of how we as a society protect children should be no different whether drugs are legal or illegal. Personally, I'm far more concerned about the non-drug user that beats his kids then the crack user who doesn't. The easiest way to protect children is to actually protect them, not

Drug abuse will get worse if drugs are legalized.

Maybe. Or maybe not. I'm not sure anyone knows for sure. What is certain is that the government's own data indicates that millions of Americans have tried the worst sorts of illegal drugs in their lifetimes, but only a small percentage of those who have tried are actually current users. More people would try illegal drugs for sure, if drugs were legalized, but to imply more drug abuse implies that there are millions of drug addicts being kept at bay through the fear of legal punishment and not for instance, the fear of destroying your life. I just find it hard to believe that people scared of jail would not be at least equally scared as scared of becoming a drug addict.

Drug legalization would create an atmosphere of approval.

This one drives me bonkers, as if the legality of a particular activity is the most important way we judge morality. Cheating on your spouse and cheating on a test are both morally wrong activities, but they are not criminal acts. Nor do I suspect anyone thinks that the legality of such activities make them morally acceptable.

Drugs would be more readily available to our kids!

Ask any high schooler familiar with the drug culture what's easier to get their hands on, marijuana, or alcohol. The answer you'd get, overwhelmingly, would be marijuana, precisely because it's illegal and unregulated. Your friends can grow pot. Your thirty year-old cousin from Vermont can grow pot and he's got no problem selling it to high schoolers because he's already breaking the law. But to get alcohol, high schoolers need to find someone over twenty-one who's not breaking the law by buying alcohol, but would be wiling to break the law to give it to high schoolers. Not that alcohol isn't readily available to kids, I'd just say illegal drugs are more so. This argument that legalization would make drugs more available to kids is just ridiculous because illegal drugs are already readily available to any teenagers who seek them out.

Alcohol can't kill you with one drink, but some drugs can kill you with one dose.

Pot can't. Or maybe it could, but alcohol probably could too if you made a bathtub gin strong enough. And that's precisely the reason to legalize, because legal products (with or without the force of the regulatory state) are simply safer than illegal products. You could sue the seller and maker of a legal drug that made a loved one drop dead, but you don't exactly have any legal recourses from illegal drug dealers.

What about the welfare state? Who will pay for the negative side effects of drug use?

This is a real concern, particularly with Obamacare on the horizon. But again, don't we as a society pay for the cost of illegal drug use already? There's a particularly dangerous slippery slope argument to make in regards to the welfare state and the ability of government to limit it's costs. If the point of keeping rug prohibition is to enforce criminal punishments against those who would cost system more money, why can't this logic be extended to any other activity that could cost taxpayers money? This is a good argument against public health care. It's not a good argument for drug prohibition.

Finally, I'd like to respond to those who would defend police militarization and the use of SWAT tactics on non-violent offenders, to those who accept the current state of the war on drugs and refer to sort of dog-killing raids I linked to last post as "isolated incidents."

One commenter in the Stossel column notes that one failure in thousands of raids should be seen as an effective program. But the problem is, we don't know how effective these tactics are because most communities, states, and the federal government don't keep records on their use and the information just isn't available to the public. For those of us who follow such things, what we do know is that botched raids of all sorts are more common than once in thousands. What we need is accountability for the sorts of tactics used by law enforcement, an idea that should hardly be controversial.

And a better question than the percentage of successful versus unsuccessful raids would be the number of these sorts of raids where no weapons are found versus the number of raids where weapons are found. Defending the status quo in this regard is to defend the right of police to have no accountability whatsoever, yet this is precisely what some drug warriors defend.


Blogger McMc said...

I think you need to paint a better picture of your legalized drug utopia because some of your logic doesn't make sense to me.

For one, you want to treat all of these recreational drugs like alcohol, yet you reference them being available in pharmacies. Do you mean to suggest these drugs would be prescription based or over the counter? If it's the former, that means there would most definitely be a black market. If it's the latter, why would those drugs be treated differently than say Vicodin or other potent prescription drugs?

Secondly, how come you never recognize that not all recreational drugs are as harmless as marijauna? You do recognize that LSD or heroin or something along those lines are a lot more dangerous and mind-altering than pot? So wouldn't those drugs be under higher scrutiny?

Third, do you expect drugs to just be sold almost as-is or do you just imagine the pharmaceutical companies will all have these perfect synthesized versions of drugs that are perfectly safe for all to take? Because the latter probably isn't a reality and the former would also contribute to a black market (because I'm assuming drug stores wouldn't be letting this stuff go cheap, and all of sudden those cheap offerings from the dealers will look a lot better. Sure you can get peace of mind that from a pharmacy that your drugs aren't mixed with other dangerous things, but does that stop people from buying now?)

Again, a lot of your arguments are based on alcohol being legal and the problems caused by it, but the picture you're painting doesn't really make sense to me.

4:06 PM  
Blogger 于庭 said...


2:09 AM  
Blogger 婉婷 said...

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7:06 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

I had written up a really long response that I stupidly didn't save and blogger decided to devour. So let's try one more time.

You make good points, more practical than most, about what a regime of legalized drugs would look like. I'm purposely vague, as are most libertarians, because while the appeal of ending prohibition can cross all political boundaries, just what the legalized regime would look like would vary greatly in accordance with one's views on government. The ultra-libertarian model would probably involve the abolishment of the FDA and doctor prescriptions as barriers to drug access. That doesn't mean no role at all for doctors or the FDA in terms of guidance, but the idea would be to eliminate legal barriers to what we decide to do with our own bodies.

Advocates for ending prohibition on the left probably have a more stringent regulatory regime in mind. Either way, the point is to eliminate the violence and crime associated with drug prohibition and the war on drugs.

To answer your questions briefly:

1) The prescription model for recreational drugs would simply not work because doctors are in the business of health, not recreation and helping people get high. The best idea I have is to have recreational drugs distributed by pharmacists, who are more knowledgeable as to dosage and drug interactions than are doctors.

2) I prefer not to get into the business of judging the "danger" or "riskiness" of drugs because those concepts are dependent upon the dosage, the individual, and the context. One can OD from alcohol just as easily as one can OD from any sort of opiate- again, dosage and context matter.

3) I expect that the drugs sold will be whatever the market demands. The biggest argument to legalize drugs is to eliminate the black markets so the idea would be to supply the drugs that people want in a legal manner. In terms of cost, legal drugs would be drastically cheaper than illegal drugs. Illegal drugs cost a lot of money because of the tremendous costs of financing an illegal operation- the smuggling, the underground sales, the muscle- there's nothing inherently expensive about drugs themselves. We're talking significantly cheaper too- imagine a package of marijuana cigarettes that costs the same (or less) as a pack of cigarettes. I'm just throwing numbers out here, but we're talking about drug prices that are maybe 1/10 of what they are on the black market.

I think the most important fact that people seem to miss is that the power of government can never completely eradicate the natural functioning of markets. A black market is still a market and basic market forces of supply and demand still apply when the government has prohibited a certain product.

8:40 AM  

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