The Corner

Politics & Policy

Is America Ready to Decriminalize Meth and Heroin?

Pete Buttigieg at a campaign event in Nashua, N.H., February 9, 2020. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

In 1969, the height of the Sixties’ cultural revolution, Pew found that only 12 percent of Americans supported the legalization of pot. Fifty years later, 67 percent of voters support it. Virtually every candidate on the Democratic presidential slate backs some form of marijuana legalization. Even the Trump administration has left states to manage their own business on the matter. This year, at least one candidate supports going further and decriminalizing all drugs.

On Sunday, Fox News’ Chris Wallace pushed Iowa caucus winner Pete Buttigieg to explain his support for the “decriminalization” of all narcotics.

First, he asked Buttigieg whether laws act as a deterrent to those willing trying “meth and heroin” for the first time. Buttigieg dissembled, and never answered the question. One supposes, “this is America, Chris, and if someone wants to freebase it’s none of my business,” is still tad bit too libertarian for the average American voter.

That happens to be my philosophical position: Americans should be free to ingest whatever they choose — cigarette smoke, trans fats, mega-sodas, and/or methamphetamine. I’m skeptical that significant number of people will begin shooting heroin simply because possession of small amounts of the drug have been decriminalized. We already enforce our drug laws arbitrarily.

My rational self is forced to concede that on the margins, people already inclined to do hard narcotics will find it easier to obtain them if we decriminalize, and that may cost lives. There’s plenty of evidence that alcohol consumption fell during Prohibition and then increased again when it was overturned. In Seattle, where drug possession has been effectively legalized, the trend of rising overdoses hasn’t changed.

It’s a banal observation, no doubt, to say that there are no easy answers. There are, however, some obvious questions to consider: Is the War on Drugs worth the cost? Is it worth throwing non-violent criminals into prison rather than rehab? Is it worth spending billions on police-state efforts that do little to mitigate the problem rather than diverting those funds to figuring out other ways to combat addiction?

Yet when Wallace pushed Buttigieg to clarify what decriminalization might entail, he couldn’t provide any specifics, declaring that we shouldn’t worry about the “legal niceties” but rather about the failures of the drug war.

Well, the difference between a felony, a misdemeanor, or no punishment at all isn’t a legal nicety, it’s the distinction between criminalization and decriminalization, as anyone with a criminal record will tell you.

Specifics are going to be important. Most Americans have had at last some interaction with pot, which, though it might make us useless or stupid, won’t kill us. When you start talking about meth and heroin, average Americans probably start picturing drug supermarkets on Main Street, kids shooting up behind 7/11s, and resultant criminality.

To this point, Buttigieg, who is further to the left than is generally understood, seems unable to defend his position effectively or even fully. It’ll be interesting to see how the issue plays out if he solidifies as a major contender — though I suspect the majority of the electorate isn’t ready for legal meth.


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