Politics & Policy

The Opioid Crisis Should Kill the Call to Legalize Hard Drugs

(Image: Alexskopje/Dreamstime)
The costs of using hard drugs are worse and more horrific than the costs of prohibition.

There are times in life when ideas are overtaken by events, when the hard experience of reality meets and overcomes the hopefulness of ideas. Now is just such a time. As the opioid crisis takes lives on a historic scale, it’s time to kill a bad idea. Just say no to legalizing hard drugs.

To be sure, there’s not a large constituency in support of legalizing any drugs other than marijuana, but their legalization, including that of narcotics, has been a topic of lively intellectual debate ever since the war on drugs truly took off. The editors of National Review have long supported legalization, libertarians have argued vociferously for legalization for decades, and a number of influential thinkers on the left and the right have joined in agreement on this one issue.

Outside of college dorms, the argument for legalization, in general, isn’t that drugs should be legalized because they’re fun and people can be trusted to use them responsibly. Rather, it’s that the costs of the war on drugs — in lives lost, lives squandered in prison, and civil liberties curtailed — outweigh the probable harm of legalization. Here are the editors of National Review in 1996: “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.”

Intelligent supporters of legalization know that drug use would increase, but would it increase so much as to overtake the cost of homicide, robbery, and incarceration? Well, after years of experimenting with opioid prescriptions so promiscuous that they functioned as a form of quasi-legalization, the answer appears to be yes. The costs of drug use are worse and more horrific than the costs of prohibition.

But first, a bit of history. As German Lopez lays out in a thoughtful extended piece at Vox, opioid prescriptions increased as the federal government pushed the “pain as the fifth vital sign” campaign and as pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketed opioids like OxyContin. Opioid prescriptions skyrocketed and addiction rates increased, and as addiction increased, so did overdoses. To be clear: Not all these new addicts were the actual patients. Simply put, families and communities were suddenly awash in narcotics, with extraordinarily potent drugs filling medicine cabinets from coast to coast.

I distinctly remember the change. I remember my confusion when an emergency-room nurse asked me to measure my pain on a scale from 1 to 10 after a friend scraped my eyeball in a pickup basketball game. It all seemed so subjective. Since I’d never experienced ultimate agony, how could I measure? I said “seven” and got a bottle of Vicodin. In reality, I probably could have managed with a shot of bourbon and a few Advil. Later that same year, I asked my secretary at my law firm if she had some Tylenol to help a stress headache. Her response? “No, but I have some Percocet.”

As Robert VerBruggen notes in his own piece rethinking drug libertarianism, it seems that most addicts don’t actually get their pain pills from a doctor. Why bother? The drugs were simply everywhere, with enough pill bottles prescribed to provide one to every American, many times over. And once addiction took hold, greater restrictions on prescriptions meant that addicts just switched to a cheaper and deadlier drug, heroin. The numbers are startling:

overdose-deaths-chart.jpg

And now, as virtually every American knows, we face a national crisis. In 2016 drug-overdose deaths increased 11 percent over 2015’s already-high number. A stunning 52,404 Americans lost their lives. To compare, that’s almost 15,000 more than died in car crashes and roughly 16,000 more than died to guns, including homicides and suicides. In fact, that number probably undercounts the toll from drug abuse, since doubtless some number of suicides represented addicts who’d hit rock bottom and saw no way out but through the barrel of a gun or the bottom of the pill bottle.

In other words, opioids are monstrous inventions that overpower the human will on a mass scale. There are no “rational actors” among addicts, and the substances are extraordinarily addictive. Do you know an opioid addict? Then you’ve seen them slide slowly away from reality.

The formula is simple — flood the market with pills, and you’ll flood the country with addicts.

The formula is simple — flood the market with pills, and you’ll flood the country with addicts. A number of smart (no, brilliant) people thought that the costs of enforcement outweighed the costs of legalization. That may well be true of marijuana, but can we make that argument any longer with opioids? If people have access to pills, they tend to take pills, and an uncomfortably large proportion of them get so hooked on them that if you take them away, they move to even harder and more powerful drugs. A horrifying percentage overdose and die.

That’s not to say that fighting the war on drugs means winning the war on drugs. It may mean that we do nothing more than contain the problem, preventing it from spiraling out of control even further. And, as Lopez notes in Vox, arguing against legalization isn’t the same thing as arguing against reform, including reforming the way in which the criminal-justice system deals with drug offenders. There is much room for creativity and thoughtfulness in dealing with the crisis. I see no room for broader availability and greater ease of access.

Last year I sat next to a man on a plane who lost his daughter to a combination of Xanax and Lortab. She’d taken both drugs for years, to deal with anxiety and chronic pain. As he told the story, every year she grew more tolerant. Every year she had to take more to achieve the same effect. One terrible and stressful night, she took an extra dose to force herself to sleep. She never woke up.

If we legalize hard drugs, there will be more stories like that — many more. Opioids make slaves of men. There is no choice but to continue the fight.

— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.

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