My complaint with the American media is not so much that they are biased, as that they are biased yet pretend to be neutral. It is why I go so much easier on the openly opinionated press of other nations. While British newspapers, for example, may be even more biased that the bulk of American media, most of them are openly so, which makes it easier for their readers to evaluate their content. If you know that a source is biased, you can mentally adjust for that bias, and reach something approaching the truth. For example, if you know you are reading a liberal source, when they blame every misfortune on the president, you know to take it with a grain of salt. However, when you read that the president is to blame in an ostensibly neutral source, you take a very different meaning from it.
So, as I respect those who openly proclaim their bias, I am going to explain my position on drug legalization up front. Now, I hope this will be, in some ways, unnecessary, as I will try to present my analysis of drug laws in as unbiased a manner as possible. But as it is possible, maybe even likely, that my own beliefs will color my analysis, despite my efforts to remain unbiased, I feel I should tell everyone from the start what I believe and why. Armed with that information, should my writing prove more biased than I think, readers will be able to assess what is unbiased evaluation of drug laws and what is just my opinion.
From the few essays here and those in my other blog, it is clear that I believe in drug legalization. And by legalization, I mean not just allowing people to use currently illicit recreational drugs, I mean total legalization, the creation of a free market in both recreational and prescription drugs, as well as tobacco and alcohol1. Obviously states will still have the power to decide what laws will be applied with regard to minors2, for the simple reason that minors lack full legal rights3 of adulthood, but other than that I would prefer to see no restrictions.
My belief in legalization rests on a number of foundations. The original reason, and still one of the primary reasons, is what some would call a theoretical basis, though I think it is remarkably practical. It is summarized best by the quote I posted yesterday from von Mises, arguing that if the state can control what is good for one's body, then there is no reason to keep the state from regulating what is good for one's mind. On, to put it more plainly, once you allow the state to tell people what is good for them in one area, there is nothing to stop it from telling them what is good for them in all areas.
For those who doubt that drug laws can lead to a loss of rights, I would ask that they look at drug forfeiture laws4. Traditionally, US law has not deprived criminals of their property. Yes, stolen goods were usually restored to their owners, ill-gotten gains could not be used to post bail, and, more recently, some laws existed to keep criminals from profiting from their illegal acts, but that was it. Excluding the taking of items to be used as evidence, the law did not concern itself with goods which were not actually stolen or contraband. Drug laws have changed that. Having managed to demonize drug dealers sufficiently that citizens no longer worry about an abrogation of their rights, laws now allow for the confiscation of goods involved in only the most tangential way. And before people think I am crying about the yachts of drug kingpins, I would point out that the cars of drug users are often seized as well, along with possessions of people uninvolved in drug deals in any way. For example, a private charter plane, where a passenger is later found to be smuggling drugs, can be seized, even though the owner was completely unaware of the smuggling. Of course he can apply to get back the plane, but again, our fear of drugs has warped the law enough that he has to prove his innocence to have his property returned. All of which is quite contrary to our legal traditions. But by introducing the assumption that citizens must be protected form themselves, we have opened the door to all sorts of abrogations of individual rights. That the state has been rather modest in its aims so far is no guarantee it will always be so.
However, my argument does not rest solely on this one argument. I also have several pragmatic supporting arguments. From the way Prohibition created a permanent, deeply embedded criminal class, it seems evident that the war on drugs could easily create a similar new criminal class, which might even survive drug legalization. Even if that does not come to pass, it is evident that much of our criminal violence has a basis in drug laws. I am not foolish enough to argue that legalization will end all of that violence, or even end all of that crime, but it will certainly reduce the motivation behind much of that violence, leading to some reduction.
Nor is that all. From funding communist rebels in Columbia to filling jails resulting in the release of other violent criminals, the drug laws have had several negative side effects, unforeseen at the time the laws were passed. In an essay of this sort, I hardly have the time to go into every possible effect, but perhaps a few in the realm of foreign affairs will help. Our drug laws raise the price of heroin drastically providing funding for warlords in Afghanistan and Thailand, while cocaine funds revolutionaries throughout South America. Our drug eradication programs have tied up both money and military resources in a number of nations when we need them elsewhere. And traffic in marijuana, cocaine and heroin has established many routes across our southern border which are used not only to smuggle drugs, but immigrants as well. Without the drug trade having blazed the trail, it seems unlikely that so many routes would have been found for human smugglers to exploit5. Doubtless human smuggling would exist even were there never any drug smugglers, but the fact that drug smugglers have established routes across the border has certainly made the business of human smuggling much easier and more profitable.
Having explained what harm I think drugs laws do6, I suppose I should spend a moment explaining my understanding of the possible harm done by legalization.
The most common argument against legalization is that removing existing laws will result in an increase in drug use, most often argued as an increase in youthful drug use. However, as I have explained elsewhere, I don't think this is as much of an issue as some would believe. I believe that those who would become addicts seem unlikely to be deterred by laws against drug use. As they are willing to suffer withdrawal and all the other health problems associated with addiction, as well as the social stigma, just to use drugs, they are very unlikely to give up drug use just because of the threat of being arrested. So, that means that the only people who are likely to be deterred from drug use by laws are the casual drug users, or those who use "soft"7 drugs. However, I would argue that even now there is little deterring casual drug users. As I wrote elsewhere, thanks to our "two tiered" enforcement system, the middle and upper class drug users have little to fear from drug laws. If caught, they can enter treatment and almost always avoid any kind of jail sentence, even for repeated offenses. Given this, there is no real fear of punishment keeping most casual users from using drugs, so, were the laws removed it would not make the climate much more attractive for casual use than it is now.
There are other argument, that crime would rise, that other societal breakdown would occur, and so on. As I can't address every concern here, let me promise that I will speak to each individual claim in the future. What I will say here is that I am aware that legalization may not be completely pain free. Very little in life is absolutely good without any ill effects, and why should this be any different. What I do think is that the painful effects will be less severe than critics think. There will surely be some problems, but I just think the benefits far outweigh the likely harm, and, in the long run, most of the ill effects will be better handled with approaches less intrusive than the war on drugs. But, as I said, I will have to make those arguments later, as answerring every possible problem would make this already long essay far too long.
Having explained my reasoning, let me add one final item. While I think the nation as a whole would benefit from drug legalization, I think there is an even better solution. Were the federal government to eliminate its drug policy, and allow each state to chart its own course, we would probably be in a better position to argue these points. As the attempts by several state to legalize medical marijuana show, there would definitely be some diversity in drug laws but for federal interference. With differing state laws we could actually see what problems and benefits come with differing laws. In addition, states could more closely tailor their laws to the beliefs of the residents.Not just that, but each state could look at the results of other states' experiments and adopt those policies that seemed most beneficial.
From our point of view, probably the greatest benefit of independent state policies would be that, instead of arguing purely theoretical positions, or relying on historical analogies, we could look at the results in states of varying policies and use those examples to explain what the costs and benefits of policies are. In other words, eliminating our uniform federal policy would allow us to have some degree of local experimentation, and take this debate out of the theoretical realm. Perhaps such experiments would prove my beliefs wrong,a nd show that drug legalization was a bad idea all along, but at least I would know it with some degree of certainty. At the moment, our imposed federal policy prevents the states from deviating at all from the single allowable set of drug laws8.
1. I find it odd that there are some who argue for drug legalization, yet support the nanny state restrictions on tobacco. It seems a completely untenable position, as the same arguments for "protecting" adults from tobacco apply to "protecting" them from drugs. If we allow one form of paternalism, there is no rational argument against the other.
2. Whether restricting access by law works or not is a question open to debate. In an ideal world, I would want parents to perform this function rather than the state, but fighting for drug legalization is enough of an uphill battle without adding the argument about giving children access to alcohol as well. So this topic can be left for another day.
3. Exactly how the rights of minors differ from those of adults is arguable. Obviously they enjoy all the legal protections of life, liberty and property that an adult does. Historically, they have been assumed incompetent to enter into certain obligations, but not all. This seems reasonable, but where we draw the line is open to debate. However, as children do lack some ability to contract, this opens the door to legally restricting their rights to purchase specific goods, to operate cars, and so on. As I have not spent much thought on this question since turning 21, the last time I cared very deeply about the topic, I will have to postpone any discussion until I can give it more thought.
4. As I plan to write a more detailed article on the way our view of rights, the role of police, and the way the government treats citizens has been changed by the war on drugs, I am providing only a short example. The essay should be written this weekend, so this single example won't have to stand alone for long.
5. It is arguable whether coyotes would have created these smuggling routes exclusively for human trafficking had the routes not already existed for smuggling drugs. On a dollar per pound basis, even marijuana is far more profitable than humans, and due to the need for oxygen and minimal food and water, as well as a need to keep temperature from rising too high, drugs are far easier to move. Given that, it seems most likely the human traffic is simply piggybacking on known drug routes and would be greatly reduced were there not drug routes already established. But that is a sufficiently intricate topic that I will put it off until I can deal with it on its own.
6. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. I have not even touched on a topic personally important to me, the way drug laws have harmed the practice of pain management. But I do not want this article to run on too long. So I will be dealing with many other topics in individual essays later. If I failed to mention something, please feel free to post a comment. While I may already be aware of it, and simply omitted it for reasons of space, it is quite possible you have thought of something I missed, so I am very happy to hear from readers about things I might have missed.
7. The distinctions seem a bit arbitrary. Heroin is really the only drug with an easily acquired physical dependency. Alcohol dependency requires quite a while to develop, and claims of physical dependency for other drugs seem to be arguable. However, as people seem to insist on dividing drugs into "hard" and "soft", I suppose we can call heroin, cocaine and amphetamines hard drugs. However, even this is a bit arguable, as people differ on whether MDMA ("ecstasy") is hard or soft. As it is a variant on amphetamine, I would suppose it is "hard", but due to quirks in the way the body handles the drug, it is not open to the same regular abuse as amphetamines. As I said, the distinction is a bit arbitrary and not one I endorse.
8. On paper the states have control over drug laws, but that is a fiction. As the federal opposition to state medical marijuana laws has shown, the federal government is willing and able to strike down any state laws which deviate from federal drug policy. While the laws are nominally under state control, in practice we have a single drug policy set at the federal level.
Originally Posted in Examining the War on Drugs on 2008/05/30.