Heroin & Rational Choice

by Jonah Goldberg

I must say, Kevin’s piece today, “Glamour Junkies,” is the best thing I’ve read on drug addiction in a while. As someone who has also known his share of junkies — and other addicts — and who disagrees with Kevin on the wisdom of legalizing heroin,  I nonetheless liked the closing quite a bit:

The model of “rational choice” has taken a beating over the years in the field of economics, and those of us with a broader and less quantitative interest in social questions should take notice. It is hard to develop a rational-choice explanation for junkies unless we consider the very short term, in which case people use heroin for the same reason they use alcohol: They are bored, they are depressed, they are lonely, they cannot sleep, it is a social convention within a certain milieu. And it is associated with a promise, usually unspoken: James Bond’s martini is as much a part of his persona as is his Walther PPK and his Aston Martin. A glass of champagne has a certain meaning, a cigarette has a certain meaning, and so does a syringe full of heroin. Those who contemplate the legalization of such substances (and I am one of them) must do so with clear eyes, neither taken in by the romanticism of heroin nor unable to understand how and why that romanticism operates in the culture, and what that means for the choices that people make. It is not the case that no one plans to become a junkie.

I’ve been something of an outlier on the drug war since I showed up at NR. I’ve been for decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana for years, but for continuing the ban on narcotics like heroin. My reasoning is that pot is like alcohol. It’s not great for you, can easily be abused to the point of wrecking your life, but also something responsible people can use in moderation. Moreover, while pot hasn’t been around nearly as long as alcohol, it has been around long enough to carve out space in the culture. Society knows how to deal with booze and weed, more or less.

Heroin is different. All recreational drugs make you irrational when high. That’s a big reason why people take them — to take a vacation from the ennui, stress, or anguish of sobriety. But drugs like heroin make you irrational when sober too. The more you take them, the more your life becomes organized around taking them. Not everyone who takes heroin once, twice, or even a dozen times becomes a junkie. But each roll of the dice increases your odds, and sometimes it does take just one roll. 

The argument for drug legalization rests on the idea that we are all — more or less — rational actors and that we should be held accountable to our choices. I certainly agree with that as a general proposition. But legalizing heroin will create more irrational actors. Again, not everyone who takes heroin will become enslaved to it. But some will. And if you lower the barriers to obtaining heroin, more will than otherwise would. Yes, personal liberty will be expanded for everyone in theory. But in fact, some people will have given themselves over to a kind of slavery that begins as the mere chemical romance Kevin describes. 

I remember early on in my tenure at National Review, I asked several of my colleagues whether we would still be against the drug war if we thought the drug war would work. I didn’t get a yes or a no in response so much as a “Now, that’s a good question!” In other words, the case against the Drug War is not wholly a case for the legalization of drugs. I don’t mind passionate opposition to the drug war. I get why it angers so many people. I’m less sympathetic to people who talk about making drug use even more socially acceptable, entirely legal, and vastly more convenient as if that would be great for everybody. 

In fairness, I think legalizers make a very plausible argument that, over time, society would figure it all out. We’d set up guardrails on our own, without the help of the State, as the culture absorbed the stupidity of heroin and other hard drugs. But that would take time. Lower the drinking age back to 18 and you will see a lot of drunk teenagers tomorrow. Lower the legal heroin age from “never” to 18 and you will see a lot more junkies. Yes, the next generation might have better foresight from standing on those corpses, but forgive me if I don’t see that as a glorious or costless victory for freedom.

As Kevin says, we should look at these things with clear eyes. As a matter of cost-benefit analysis the drug war might not be worth it. But the same sort of cost-benefit analysis would find that surrender would come with a hefty tab as well.