Morality and Drug Policy

From Thomas Rush:

If you are interested in my background, here it is. My mother raised us in a Christian household -- evangelical, fundamentalist, almost 'holy roller,' if that means anything to you. I believed (of course!) that drugs should be illegal; after all, they were dangerous.

At some point, though, I remember that I started to believe that you couldn't make someone go to heaven by controlling their behavior -- people were saved by what they thought and believed, and their actions and lives changed to match those beliefs. And so I started to question the laws we have which try to enforce morality: the laws against drugs, and homosexuality, and nudity, and prostitution, and a seemingly endless stream of others.

I also started to see some of the information about how prohibition didn't work -- how alcohol consumption went up (and went down again after repeal). How the money involved in illegal alcohol provided organized crime its foothold (in fact, probably, its reason for being). How the murder rate went up through prohibition and dropped starting soon after repeal. The tremendous jump in alcohol-related diseases from bathtub gin and overindulgence that began with the advent of prohibition, and how those same diseases and their deaths tapered off when alcohol became legal again.

In short, I saw that my earlier views of why we have these laws, and of their effects, were not consistent with reality. I very definitely remember reading, at about age twelve, an argument for treating drug addiction as a health problem, not a legal problem. At that time, I thought the idea was one of the most ludicrous ever -- these people were criminals! My views on this changed as I began to see that there was a difference between what drug users did to themselves by choice, and illegal things they did to others to support their habits.

Since then, I have discovered what I find to be the single most damning piece of evidence against our current drug laws: if we have been unable to keep illegal drugs out of our prisons, how, then, can we keep illegal drugs out of a free society?

There is an increasing number of people who support drug legalization, from a surprisingly broad spectrum of society. They include conservative columnist William Safire, the Democratic governor of Baltimore, some Federal judges, a number of think tanks, and lots of "just plain folks."

Someone once said to me, "Drug addictions destroy lives, often without the victim's knowledge. A very good friend of mine is addicted to pot. He's been smoking for several years, always claiming he's not addicted, that it's just fun, but his life is getting consistently destroyed, and he lacks the ambition he used to have. His status has gradually gone from upper middle-class to nearly poor, and he's far from unique."

This brings up two of the things that I think would be just plain silly about the war on drugs, if they weren't so frightening. First, that friend chooses to smoke pot regardless of the laws now in place. How much more draconian do they need to be made before he'll quit? How strict a law, how fierce the punishment should we enact to keep someone from consuming a substance if there is no force or fraud involved in his decision to consume it?

Second, if he's in bad shape now in his drift from the middle class, just pray that he doesn't get arrested. There are people, many people, who have had their lives shattered not because their drug use was out of control, but because of their arrest for drug use. As long as this is only a personal problem, he can decide to get medical treatment, and can get back into the middle class. The moment it becomes a legal problem, and he is arrested, he'll be lucky if he can ever be whole again.

This person continued, "Many addicts end up on welfare or homeless. They become dependent invalids, which our society must care for, whether we want to or not, because poor people will turn to violence for basic necessities if they are not provided."

This involves several points: 1) Drug addicts have a higher incidence of homelessness and are more likely to be on welfare than the population as a whole; 2) Drug addicts become dependent invalids; 3) Our society must provide for drug addicts; and 4) If society does not provide for drug addicts, they will turn to violence to keep themselves alive.

My response:

I have no problem with point 1. I think that statistics show that alcohol abusers are also much more likely to be homeless than the general population. Does this mean that we should recriminalize alcohol?

Examining the second point shows it to be false. Over fifty million people in this country have smoked marijuana. Very few of those are dependent on society for support, or invalids. I agree that some people do become addicted to illegal drugs (but alcohol has a higher addicition rate than most illegal drugs, and tobacco has just about, if not the, highest addiction rate of all), but that is not typical.

I vehemently reject point 3. Our government has decided that we shall provide for the less-well-off. I do not believe that the government is either the best, the most effective, or the lowest cost provider of welfare. In fact, the more we provide for people who have made irresponsible lifestyle choices, the easier it becomes for them to be irresponsible. I have a brother-in-law who was going down that path. He had both drug and alcohol problems. As long as he had someone in his family to give him a place to sleep and food to eat, he got worse -- more dependent. At some point, his mother (the last of the supporters) said, "Enough." It was painful to her, but it was not that long after that he began to turn his life around.

Many (if not most) of the crime problems around illegal drugs stem from the artificially high prices charged for them. There's no reason for cocaine to cost $100 for a very diluted gram. If people could keep their day job and afford to buy their substances of choice, you'd have a lot less mugging, burglary, embezzlement, what have you. In answer to point four, if drugs were again legal, users could work normal jobs and pay for normal amounts of drug use. If the lesson of prohibition is any guide, there would be less drug use. Drug use would tend to the less-concentrated forms of the drug, and away from the more dangerous and concentrated (crack, PCP) drugs that are now being sold to increase the ease of smuggling and distribution.

We could stop locking up people who engage in peaceful business transactions and hurt only themselves, if anyone. We could concentrate on keeping those in jail who do commit crimes of force or fraud against others. Our jails in Texas are so filled with people who have committed victimless crimes, thanks to the minimum sentence laws, that violent criminals serve only one month for each year of their sentence.

I am very concerned that laws need to focus on responsibility. If you choose to take a psychoactive substance, you ought to be responsible for the acts you do while under its influence.

Someone might say, "When someone is addicted to major personality-altering drugs, it becomes everyone's problem, since the person on the drugs is different from the one who calmly debates the need for legalization. I know of two incidents where train crashes were caused because the conductor was high. In one, he forgot to switch tracks. He was only high on marijuana, but many people died. It's no longer just his problem. When someone is actually addicted, they cannot control themselves, so there are high people operating heavy equipment, putting lives in danger."

The train incidents argue not for drug prohibition, but for competence testing. Those conductors could just as easily been impaired because of lack of sleep or a fight with their wife. The dangerous act is operating heavy equipment while impaired, not the way that one got impaired (unless it should be illegal to not get enough sleep?).

Someone who sells bungee jumps is statistically more likely to be killing someone than I, a computer programmer, is. Someone who designed race cars up through the sixties and seventies was endangering not only the driver of that car, but also the other drivers and the spectators; should that have been illegal? I am concerned here about the difference between an act of choice (consumption of a psychoactive substance) and an act of endangerment (putting others at risk by operating equipment while impaired). If an act doesn't endanger others, what right have we to make it a criminal act?

If I can leave you with one thought, let it be this: I feel strongly that responsibility comes from within -- from being able to learn from mistakes. Our government can give no one a sense of responsibility (no more than it can give one a sense of patriotism by drafting them). It has never been a good nanny, no matter how compelling the cause: a free people must be free to make mistakes with their own property, money, and bodies.