I was going to respond at length to commenter sg in the thread to John Quiggin’s post, but decided I would just bump it up to a post. I think I may fairly summarize sg as saying that some drugs are so intrinsically harmful that they must be illegal. Further, that the US wouldn’t be awash in guns and drugs “if the US would actually try and police the drug trade.” This last is just madness, on my view, and anyone who thinks different should just go peruse Radley Balko’s archives. [In fairness, it seems sg is referring to more competent policing rather than more overwhelming force and aggressive raids, but I’m unclear on how this is meant to work.]
I wanted to talk about something that would-be legalizers often hear, namely, “you’re not willing to admit that under your system there would be lots more drug addicts, and being addicted to drugs is, in itself, a bad thing.” In my experience this isn’t right at all, and everyone who advocates decriminalization will admit that more people will use drugs if they are more widely available and there are no legal penalties. This means more people would become addicted to drugs. How could it be otherwise? This doesn’t mean that I think it’s good thing for people to abuse IV drugs—it’s obviously a bad thing. But the costs our own nation incurs in the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs are crushing: citizens jailed for drug possession and minor sales; the wholesale violation of civil rights that attends aggressive enforcement of anti-drug laws; the fundamental unfairness of denying sick people access to drugs give them relief. With decriminalization we would need fewer police officers, and those we had could focus on violent crimes. We could reverse pernicious trends in which more and more African-American men are shoveled into the maw of the prison system. That’s not even considering the violence and misery spawned around the world by our insatiable appetite for drugs. You’ll pretty much have to convince me that decriminalization will mean free samples of heroin-enriched enfamil before I even bother to reconsider my cost-benefit analysis.
Those opposed to decriminalization are no doubt tired of hearing about the dangers of alcohol, but unfortunately it’s just a very telling point: everything that is true of other drugs is true of alcohol (it is addictive, impairs judgment, fuels crimes, can kill in large doses, etc. on down the line). Either all these things are so bad that we should return to the days of Prohibition, or these harms can be mitigated in various ways, or should be tolerated for the sake of liberty, in which case there’s no reason for other drugs to be illegal. I also think it’s worth considering that many of the people who would become junkies in my America simply become alcoholics now. Some people have addictive personalities; these people like to get fucked up wasted, and they’ll snort, drink, or inject whatever they can get their hands on. There will undoubtedly be more people with drug or alcohol addictions overall, but I think there will actually be a large amount of substitution.
sg objects that “the markets [for heroin and alcohol] are radically different, the drugs are radically different, and the drug use careers of their respective users are radically different. Libertarians (and, less criminally, left-wing drug decriminalization advocates) don’t admit this, and consistently fail to recognise the damage which would be done to society – and particularly to young people – if heroin use were to become more accessible.” This seems to overlook a few things. For one, many people use heroin without becoming addicted, or become slowly addicted but manage their drug use in such a way as to maintain a decent-seeming life for quite some time, before quitting or falling to pieces. NB: this is not at all a good idea, but it is a fact. Since these people aren’t getting dragged off into jail all the time before our eyes, we don’t think much about them, but a comparison of the “ever tried x” rates with the “did drug x last week” rates in any poll indicate that lots of people experiment with drugs and then stop. Lots of people descend into a nightmare of addiction and misery, but lots and lots of people descend into a nightmare of alcoholism and misery all the time, and we don’t seem massively exercised over that—at least not to the extent that we go all Carrie Nation on our neighborhood liquor store.
Further, there’s a causation/correlation problem. The type of person who, in our current society, tries heroin, is not just like the type of person who does not. Risk-taking, thrill-seeking people who want to get as wasted as possible with the world’s gold-standard high, are not plausibly a control group on which to test questions of relative addictiveness. If it turns out a lot of those people end up in messed-up life situations, well, it might not just be the drugs .
It’s true that I am probably imagining a society in which the use of hard drugs, while legal, is frowned upon in a way that drinking is not (anyone opposed to legalizing marijuana has just got their head up their ass, and I am unable to worry about a dystopia in which the ENDO act is passed). Perhaps after many years people’s attitudes would change to the extent that you might get offered organically produced cocaine sourced to various micro-climates in Bolivia on entering a fancy bar. That would be…not terrible. Not an intrinsic good, but on balance that world, with no DEA and many fewer citizens getting ground exceeding fine in the mills of the prison-industrial complex, would still be better than this one.