Politics & Policy

The Right Dope

Fight addiction, and facile solutions.

It is the editorial position of National Review that narcotics should be legalized in the United States. In 1996, National Review’s editors declared, “it is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial and penal procedures associated with police states.”

Five years later, little has changed to make that conclusion any less reasonable. We spend billions more dollars, we incarcerate millions more people, we consume, if not more, than certainly as many, massive (and unknowable) quantities of drugs as ever. But that doesn’t mean that the editors of National Review were necessarily right.

Personally, I don’t much like arguing about drug legalization. Almost all of my reasons are personal. First, I’ve known more than my fair, or unfair, share of people who have been hurt (and even killed) by drugs or drug users. Second, I have little desire to offer a public inventory of what substances I’ve used and which ones I haven’t. And, alas, it is almost impossible to argue against drug legalization with many legalization proponents without them in turn demanding precisely such an inventory to prove your authenticity and/or level of hypocrisy.

At the same time, there is something dismayingly Ivory Towerish about people who have no first-hand experience with drugs or the damage drugs do pontificating about how the free market can solve our drug problems in a flash.

Trafficking in Easy Answers

The film Traffic, surprisingly, has dragged the legalization argument out of college dorms and California split-level salons into the mainstream again. I was shocked by how much I liked the movie — which isn’t to say it’s cheery. Because of the sophomoric smugness of so many legalization types, I expected the film to be a druggie version of The Day After. It turns out that director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan have crafted a very nuanced and balanced story with much less sermonizing than I expected. Yes, it is a deeply political movie but it isn’t the propaganda I expected. There are no illusions about how bad drugs can be. The implausible moments do not minimize the horrors of addiction, and the pious rhetoric usually comes from the least sympathetic characters.

Nevertheless, the smugness of many pro-legalization types can be found both in the film, and in abundance in the writer himself. Gaghan said in an interview on ABC’s This Week: “You know, we have so polarized the semantics of this debate that to say legalization out loud brands you a revolutionary.”

In one sense, this is absurd. There are plenty of people who say legalization out loud all the time. Would Gaghan brand the editors of National Review “revolutionaries”? How about Milton Friedman? Or Kurt Schmoke? Most of the mature advocates of legalization do so not because of any revolutionary zeal but instead out of a certain exhaustion at how an essentially noble and worthwhile effort has failed. I don’t know this, but I would guess that most of the pro-legalization editors at National Review would be in favor of winning the drug war if they thought it was winnable.

But in another way Gaghan is right. If you come out in favor of legalization you are “branded” a revolutionary. But the people doing the branding are other legalization advocates. I can’t tell you how many campus conservatives I’ve met who want to show off their radicalism by saying they’re in favor of legalization. Indeed, there are few things that make some pro-legalization conservatives, libertarians, and libertines of a certain ilk and age more offensive to me than their arrogant, effete braggadocio — which is little more than a desire to justify their own drug use and sound avant-garde at the same time.

For a Republican kid, talking about the racism of the drug war is the rough equivalent of a Young Democrat putting on a black armband in solidarity with Castro; it provides the frisson of a firebrand almost cost free.

Gaghan says the drug war and former Drug Czar Bill Bennett have created a climate that brands drug addicts as criminals. “It’s easy to raise your hand and say, ‘Hey, I have a health care problem. I need some help,’ than to say, ‘Hey, I’m a criminal. I need some jail.’”

Maybe so, but I’ve never known a drug addict to fear coming forward because he was afraid of getting arrested for past drug use or refuse treatment because he was afraid people would discover he’d violated drug laws. Still, this raises the question left unclear by Gaghan and his movie. Should drug use — legal or not — be stigmatized?

Let’s Be Honest

Gaghan is no innocent on the evils of drug addiction. He was an addict himself who didn’t turn clean until his three main drug dealers were arrested. But Gaghan says the reason people don’t get help is because people like Bill Bennett have put too much stigma on being a drug addict. OK. But we’ve also been told time and again by many legalizers that in a free and lawful marketplace a climate of stigma will naturally evolve to help regulate addiction, like it seems to be doing with cigarettes and, to a much lesser extent, with booze.

Well, which is it? If addictive narcotics are legal, won’t we need more stigma, not less, if we want to reduce addiction? And if there’s more shame and guilt directed at drug users and sellers, how will legalization make it easier for people to find treatment?

Unless, of course, you aren’t concerned with the level of drug use at all. This is a principled position held by many, though not all, libertarians. Some say shame and social stigma as opposed to government intervention are the more appropriate means of regulating a free society. Others argue that freedom is freedom and nobody can or should legitimately judge anybody else so long as no crimes are broken and everybody’s rights are respected.

We can talk more about libertarian schisms another day, but the fact is that many of the libertarian proponents of legalization either want more people to do drugs or simply don’t care if they do. Cato Institute Vice President David Boaz, one of the best and brightest of the libertarian ideologists, writes in his book, Libertarianism: A Primer, that he would rather see drugs sold in liquor stores and “produced by reputable firms.” He correctly says that under legalization there would be fewer violent crimes because addicts wouldn’t “have to commit crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable (and safer) if it were legal.”

Now, Boaz is consistent — consistency being the chief advantage libertarians have over all other ideologies. Boaz doesn’t want to judge social behavior as long as rights are respected and people face the consequences of their actions.

But, many people subscribe to Boaz’s proposal without recognizing that he and those like him are not proposing a war by another means. They propose complete and total surrender. In Boaz’s better world your firm could be “reputable” if it sold heroin and PCP (so much for cultural stigma). In his better world your dealer would be replaced by a corner store. In his better world, legal drugs could be sold alongside the beef jerky and Pokémon cards. And, in his better world these narcotics would be more, not less, likely to get you both really, really, high and also really, really addicted.

In short, under the libertarian paradigm it would be easier for more people to get hooked on drugs for longer periods of time.

So What?

As I understand it, National Review’s argument in favor of legalization is not a libertarian one. The editors wrote of drugs in 1996, “we deplore their use; we urge the stiffest feasible sentences against anyone convicted of selling a drug to a minor.” I must assume and hope that if drugs are legalized, National Review would still reserve the right to judge people harshly who use drugs, sell drugs, or who endorse either. What Reason magazine would do, I have no idea.

But, one might ask, why maintain prohibition for minors? The answer, is, of course, obvious. Minors are not rational actors, like adults. Children have never fit easily in the libertarian paradigm.

Well, my problem with legalizing, say, heroin or cocaine is that for an irreducible minority of people these drugs render citizens into something less than a rational adults. Therefore the normal rules that permit the market to work — self-interest rightly understood, the importance of delayed gratification, hell, the rules of law and decency that preclude most consumers from robbing, killing, and cheating people — are suspended. A Hayekian world becomes a Hobbesian one when enough people freely choose to try crack, because, for many of them, it’s a one-way trip.

The market paradigm assumes that people can rationally define their own self-interest. But for some people, drugs are like a computer virus or a misfired gene that re-writes your programming to give you a misguided concept of self-interest. So this suggestion that because Betty Crocker brand speedballs will be cheaper, purer, and more available, somehow fewer people will ruin their lives taking drugs, seems difficult for me to accept. And, let me say as an aside, that when I hear liberals who normally have nothing but disdain or distrust for the market — for everything from garbage pickups to the sales of rubber shower shoes — suddenly embrace the wisdom of the market in the case of crank and heroin, my confidence only surges.

The Right Direction

All of the above notwithstanding, the drug war is of course a failure. I am in favor of decriminalizing and probably legalizing marijuana. While I think pot is certainly psychologically addictive for some people, it’s not anything like heroin or crack. The gateway-drug arguments about pot don’t persuade me. And, if we are going to try decriminalization we have to start somewhere and pot is certainly the best candidate for a whole slew of reasons — including a surge in sales for the snack-food industry, which might just help get us out of a recession faster.

But beyond that, my hope lies in the area of science. Public education and the intelligent application of police power are important, but clearly they are insufficient. The responsible libertarians and pro-legalization conservatives are also surely right that expanding the scope of individual freedom, and thereby de-romanticizing the outlaw appeal of narcotics, will surely encourage more personal responsibility and social self-regulation. But the truth is, I don’t think either side is right because drug addiction is not a soluble problem through social policy in a free society, though it is a problem.

So that’s why I look to science. Not only do I hope that it will create better, safer, drugs. I keep hope alive that science will create cures to addiction. Without addiction, the case for legalization is vastly more persuasive because, sans addiction, people will behave rationally. Until that day, the national game of whack-a-mole will continue.


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