“I am never sure I’ve handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times.” John Ruskin
What should politics, government, and law have to do with people taking drugs for fun?
Sitting on my shoulder is a libertarian angel saying, “Nothing!”
Sitting on my butt is me… parent, property owner, concerned citizen.
One thing I’m concerned about is this libertarian angel on my shoulder… What’s up with that? Does it have something to do with the drugs I took for fun when I was in college? Am I having an Ayn-Rand-on-acid flashback?
Another thing I’m concerned about is the drugs themselves…
What if there was a drug that caused unpredictable mood swings, reckless and irresponsible behavior, a tendency towards violence, and severe – often fatal – effects on physical and mental health?
I’ve got a six-pack of it in the fridge. And I’m fully intending to pop open a can or two as soon as I get done writing.
Under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the U.S. banned the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of this perilous drug from 1920 to 1933 – with various unintended adverse consequences. (Al Capone.)
Under other federal laws, the U.S. banned opiates in 1914, marijuana in 1937, and cocaine in 1970 – with various unintended adverse consequences. (Disco.) Not to mention mass incarceration, millions of Americans with felony records because they were looking to have or provide a little fun, hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from overdoses of dangerous drugs that contained qualities or quantities of drugs far more dangerous than drug consumers anticipated, wholesale murder by foreign drug cartels, retail murder by domestic drug gangs, exploding meth labs in trailer parks, and untold, wasted tax dollars spent on political, governmental, and legal involvements in all of the above.
The libertarian side of me is convinced that people should have the right to use whatever drugs they want and the responsibility to take the consequences of using those drugs.
Why isn’t the libertarian side of me totally convincing the insides of me? Why, in my gut, do I worry about drug legalization?
A Thought Experiment
What would happen if we totally and completely legalized drugs?
We’d save a lot of money. The Cato Institute and various other sources across the political spectrum – from Fox News to the Center for American Progress – estimate that in the 48 years since the “War on Drugs” was declared, the U.S. government has spent at least $1 trillion fighting it. (FYI, we lost.)
Current federal spending on drug enforcement is about $51 billion annually.
By comparison, current federal spending on highway funding is about $45 billion annually. So if you hit a pothole and your bong water spills, blame it on drug criminalization.
We would save a lot of money. But we would also have a lot more people on drugs. It’s simple economics (simple, at least, in the context of a “thought experiment”): Lower price means greater demand.
A legal and competitive marketplace would depress the monetary price of drugs. Furthermore, the high price of illegal drugs has always been more than monetary…
Meeting shady characters in sketchy neighborhoods. Policemen with dogs that want to play a really bad game of “fetch.” A purchased substance that may be 20-toke-am-I-high-yet? ditch weed or may be dried parsley laced with fentanyl and Drano.
Fear, as well as cash, is a price to be paid. And legalization combined with the checks and balances of market forces would dramatically reduce it.
Many more Americans will be going around spaced-out, tweaked-up, and goofing on their buzz. This will not be a “good life choice” for most of them.
Rigidly libertarian logic means being tempted into a “Social Darwinism” argument. There will be non-survival of the un-fittest. The spacey, the tweaky, and the goofy will orbit their lost planets, speed at 100 mph towards their brick walls, and goof-off into the graveyard.
I don’t have the stomach for that kind of reasoning. Too many people are too vulnerable to addiction and dependence, not to mention stupidity. I’ve got a person like that in my own family. He’s headed for the six-pack in the fridge right now. Get back to your keyboard, you knucklehead!
On the other hand, the Journal of American Medicine reports that 16.7% of American adults – one in six – take some kind of legally prescribed psychiatric drugs, mostly antidepressants. This complicates the simple economics of the thought experiment (“cheaper drugs = more drug use”) by introducing the factor of market saturation. It’s possible that drug legalization wouldn’t be as hazardous as I fear because – when it comes to spacey, tweaky goofs – America’s already got them.
An Experience Experiment
Maybe I should have more faith in the beneficent self-organizing characteristics of a free society. A free society has ways, other than calling the police, to deal with problems of social well-being.
The three-martini lunch is long gone from the business world. Not because it was outlawed, but because of what a non-Irish lawyer friend of mine who worked with a lot of Irish lawyers on Wall Street told me 40 years ago. He said, “I know it’s time to quit talking business with the Irish lawyers when they start putting out their cigarettes in the butter.”
The historian W.J. Rorabaugh, whose American Hippies book I cited in this issue’s “Letter From the Editor,” also wrote a study of American drinking trends called The Alcoholic Republic. So named for good reason. According to figures from Rorabaugh’s research, at the time of the American Revolution, per capita consumption among the Thirteen Colonies’ drinking-age population (15+) was about 6.5 gallons of alcohol per year.
Rorabough is talking about 100% alcohol. By 1830 that per capita consumption had risen to 7.1 gallons. Assuming 80 proof hooch (40% alcohol), 7.1 gallons is 2,272 1½ ounce bartending jiggers, enough for more than six stiff drinks a day for every man, boy, wife, mother, and young lady in the nation.
A notable event of the 1830s was the opening of the Oregon Trail. More notable is that anybody could find Oregon.
Another notable event of the 1830’s was the (unsurprising, given the circumstances) growth of the Temperance Movement. The teetotalers advocated laws against alcohol, but until the 18th amendment was passed nearly 100 years later, they had to rely mostly on social pressure. This worked. Rorabaugh says that even by 1840, per capita consumption was reduced to 3.1 gallons a year and was at about 2.5 gallons (approximately where it is today) when Prohibition began.
But here’s a little bad news for libertarians… Laws also work. Contrary to the folklore of the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition did not lead to an increase in drinking. Annual per capita consumption of alcohol fell below one gallon.
Such statistics are not perfectly reliable due to people like my dad. He and my Uncle Joe almost froze to death in a snowstorm driving an open Model T truck full of bootleg whiskey down from the Detroit River to Toledo. Fortunately, they were well-supplied with anti-freeze.
Nonetheless, Prohibition did have measurable effects on alcohol abuse. According to a study from the Harvard University School of Government, cirrhosis death rates for U.S. men were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 and 10.7 per 100,000 in 1929.
Decades later, a lot of laws were also passed against smoking. You couldn’t do it here. You couldn’t do it there. You couldn’t even do it in the filthy john at CBGB on the Bowery. And cigarette taxes were raised exorbitantly. But with a drug as addictive as nicotine (and, Montecristo No. 5 smoldering in my ashtray, I know of what I speak) there should have been heavily armed “Camel Cartels” springing up all over Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, each with its “Pall Mall Escobar” or “El Chapo Menthol.”
It didn’t happen. Social pressure to quit smoking decreed otherwise. According to the Centers for Disease Control 42.4% of American adults smoked cigarettes in 1965. Only 14% do now. A country doesn’t get rid of a habit like that in one generation just by waving a legislative magic wand.
Seatbelt use is another example. “Click it or ticket” legislation did play a part. But social pressure was more important than anything the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did to increase seatbelt use from 14% in 1983 to 89.7% in 2017.
I judge this by my 14-year-old son (whose social pressure is called Mom) dutifully buckling up when he and I drive the Jeep from the house to the barn, 200 yards on a grass track with no highway in sight, at 5 mph, and the only thing we’re going to hit is Henny-Penny if I left the chicken coop open.
And yet… And yet… I wrestle with that libertarian angel. A free society will self-organize to produce beneficent social pressure. But a free society is also free to politically advocate, exercise governance, and engage in lawmaking.
And social pressure can’t do everything. There was plenty of social pressure against drug use in the 1960s. Despite the era’s reputation for pervasive “better living through chemistry,” Gallup polling information from 1969 indicates that marijuana had been tried by only 4% of Americans.
Again, such statistics are not perfectly reliable due to people like – following in my father’s footsteps – me. I was so stoned in 1969 that I couldn’t have figured out which end of the pencil to use to fill out the Gallup Poll survey.
Social pressure (“Get a job!”) caused me to snap out of it. But I had friends who didn’t snap or even bend to social pressure. I don’t consider cannabis to be a terribly harmful drug, but people who continued to consume it heavily into middle age are… porch furniture. Get a can of paint and color them vague.
Then there were those “freaks” – we actually called ourselves that – who were probably already dealing with as much psychic malformation as they could handle. They took psychedelic trips to…? They never call. They never write. We haven’t heard from them since.
I was a reporter during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early ‘90s. I went on police ride-alongs. I visited crack dens. Description would require a Dante or a Milton. The hellish thing about crackheads being arrested and jailed was that arresting and jailing them was beside the point. Being a crackhead was hell.
Maybe I’m just lazy and what really bothers me about drug legalization is the difficult work involved. If drugs aren’t prohibited by legal rules, then I have to go through the trouble of thinking hard about drugs and thinking hard about how to explain to my children (for one example) and to myself (for another example) why drugs are prohibited by the rules of common sense.
I have to hold forth to the kids (and the world) about the hazards of pot, crack, smack, and (to quote Hunter S. Thompson) “a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers,” plus whatever synthetic nut dust got invented yesterday.
I’m not worried that the kids won’t listen. I’m worried that they’ll look…The look I get… “Dad, you are such an idiot.”
I’m not worried that the kids won’t listen. I’m worried that they’ll look. I know that look. I’ve already held forth to the kids – cigar in one hand and beer in the other – about the hazards of tobacco and alcohol.
The look I get… “Dad, you are such an idiot.”
And that’s how I look arguing with myself about drug legalization, especially with this molting libertarian angel squatting on my clavicle and twisting my ear.