The Drug Thing

One of the salient features of the drug1 debate in the US is the absolute conviction with which the various sides make their arguments. It's pretty amazing. The issue has been kicked around in this country for almost 100 years (opium was a hot topic back at the turn of the century), or even longer, if you count the temperance debates of 1785, with no satisfactory resolution. And yet, to those who debate this issue on the national stage, it's a no-brainer. We are embarrassed by our inability to see with their clarity.

And just who are these mighty intellects, thoughtfully debating this issue across the length and breadth of our land? Let's face it: experts may air their opinions in any number of professional journals, or at lectures and symposiums, but the popular media belongs to entertainers and politicians. The successful members of these two groups are, as a rule, immensely charismatic - after all, this is how they make their livings. Since the various media outlets must compete with each other for our attention, and as most of us are more willing to tune in a Dennis Miller "rant" or an interview with Bill Clinton, than a documentary on prohibition or an interview with David Musto2, it is quite natural that the former get all the air time. Never mind that the views expressed by Bill and Dennis may be a wee bit, shall we say, shallow; they are inarguably far more engaging - less for their substance than for their manner of presentation3.

The basic issues regarding drugs revolve around whether or not their use should be controlled by our government. The arguments, both pro and con, fall into two basic categories: philosophical and practical.

The practical arguments ought to be easiest, as the United States has had in its past some experience with broad governmental control of drugs. In 1919 the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages within the US. This amendment was revoked in 1933 by the 21st Amendment, although the states might still pass their own laws prohibiting alcoholic beverages, and it would remain a federal crime to transport such beverages into prohibition states. The prohibition years, as they are called, contain some valuable lessons for those who care to study them.

During prohibition use of alcoholic beverages declined to their lowest level in US history. Just prior to prohibition, the average per capita consumption of alcohol across the nation was greater than 2.1 gallons annually. That average fell to 0.9 gallons annually in 1920, when the 18th Amendment took effect. Consumption began rising again after the repeal of prohibition. In 1990, that figure stood at 2.76 gallons, about three times the level of the prohibition years. The incidence of cirrhosis of the liver also fell dramatically during prohibition, as well as the number of deaths from this condition, and did not begin to rise again until after passage of the 21st Amendment4. If drugs were legalized, could we expect a similar rise in the amount of drug use, disease and mortality? In my view, almost certainly.

On the debit side of the equation, prohibition also saw the significant growth of organized crime in the US, due almost entirely to traffic in alcohol (contrary to popular assumptions, organized crime was already well established in the US prior to 1920). The homicide rate rose from 0.007% in 1920 to 0.0097% in 1933. How much of this rise is attributable to prohibition is conjectural, because the homicide rate had been increasing at a steady rate since about 1905, when it stood at 0.001%. There is no denying, however, that the rate dropped sharply following the repeal of prohibition, to 0.005% by the mid 1940's5. The homicide rate in 1980 and 1990 was roughly equal to the peak attained at the end of prohibition. While these numbers may not seem very high, the psychological impact of violence in general and murder in specific magnifies its significance, even compared with the higher death rates that accrue from abuse of drugs and alcohol. If drugs were legalized, could we expect a decrease in the homicide rate similar to the fall that followed prohibition? Again, almost certainly. Moreover, the loss of income would hurt criminal organizations, while sales tax revenues would increase.

As for the cost of doing business, the figure I have heard for spending on the drug war in 1998 is $18 billion. On the other hand, the legalization of alcohol has led to huge health care costs from alcohol-abuse related diseases, and similar rises could reasonably be expected if drug use were to increase dramatically6. From my point of view, the pros and cons on the practical side of the issue amount to a toss-up. What it really boils down to is which problems we want to deal with - those that result from trying to prohibit the use of drugs, or from their free use. To those who seem to believe that all of our country's drug related ills can be solved by legalization, I can only say "HEY! WAKE UP! This is a no-win situation, and whichever way we end up going, we had better be prepared to deal with the consequences!"

I find the philosophical arguments much more compelling, because they impact directly on what kind of people we want to be, and how much control we want our government and society to have over our lives. Not only do they encompass the practical fallout indicated above, they also indicate consequences with a far broader reach. The 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, wrote in his Essay on Liberty that a democratic society must protect itself from "the tyranny of the majority.7" Mill felt that the only legitimate use of society's coercive power against any of its adult members was to prevent one individual from doing evil to another. Above all, society may not coerce an adult individual to a certain course of action for his or her own good, either physical or moral. "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

This idea has had a great deal of influence over political thought in our country. Those in favor of legalizing drugs have used this as the basis of their philosophical arguments. They maintain that their use is an individual, discretionary choice that is none of our business. It is not up to the government or society to tell us what we may or may not do to ourselves, in the privacy of our own persons8. They maintain that abuse of drugs is an essentially victimless crime, and is therefore not a matter of concern for government. "Everyone has a right to go to hell in their own way," they aver. That sounds good, and is in fact one of the arguments that makes me ambivalent on the whole debate. Because I do believe it is an individual's responsibility to take care of himself - not society's, and not the government's.

Unfortunately, this essentially libertarian argument trips on a couple of practical points (and have you ever noticed how often a philosophical or ethical issue is answered by practicality?). The first is that once hell is achieved, the majority of its inhabitants want to leave, and most of us are simply not equipped to ignore this plea for help. We collect funds, solicit donations, and urge our representatives in government to use our tax dollars to ameliorate the problem. And even those of us willing to let the poor fool lie in the bed he made for himself are not disposed to ignore those he dragged along. This is the second point - the souls on that hellbound train often buy extra tickets for their families. Understand this - I am not saying that these practical matters invalidate the libertarian principle; no practical consideration ever invalidates a principle. I simply point out that living by this principle has a cost - we must either ignore those whose lives are wrecked by their abuse of drugs, or rescue them from the consequences of their folly.

That the drug abuser harms others is the basis for the philosophical stance of most of those who wish to maintain legal prohibitions on drugs. They maintain that the abuse of drugs is harmful to society, and is therefore against society's best interests. That statement has a somewhat scary, Orwellian ring to it, but it is grounded in the idea that society may coerce the individual in order to keep him from harming others. Getting drunk is not illegal, but attempting to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated is, since doing so carries a significant potential for causing harm to others. By the same token, you wouldn't want to share the road with someone whose perceptions were skewed by hallucinogens. Drug laws are very broad in scope, however, because they outlaw the use of a substance under all conditions (although exceptions for medical use are sometimes made). They go far beyond instances like the drunk driving laws - a drunk driver is not deprived of his right to drink, but may well be deprived of his right to drive.

Many of those who argue in favor of legal prohibitions hold that the use of drugs presents a significant potential for harm to others under any, or at least, most conditions, and that the prohibitions are therefore justified. Where this can be proved for specific cases, blanket prohibitions are certainly justified. It has certainly not been proved, however, for all substances classed as drugs, except under the rather tenuous and vague charges that they corrupt youth, and encourage irresponsibility. Such arguments stretch the point (as I'm sure Plato would have concurred), and overstep the spirit of Mills' general principle.

There is, of course, a segment of society that feels justified in placing strictures on others "for their own good." These range from the people who pass laws requiring the use (not just the presence) of seat-belts in motor vehicles, or helmets for motorcycle operators, to those who would like to see Christianity acknowledged as the official religion of our country. While this segment of society does not yet constitute the majority, their numbers swell, perhaps inevitably9.

Such are the arguments, both practical and philosophical. On the practical side, I had rather deal with the problems of violence and crime, than the less intimidating, but more widespread and tenacious, problems of disease and sickness resulting from the great increase in drug use that I believe would result from legalization. That is a personal inclination. However, I am also a firm believer in the principles of personal autonomy and individual responsibility, and feel that these considerations must take precedence over expedience.

Respect for individual liberties demands that we not coerce our fellows into behaving according to our own inclinations and standards, so long as they are not injuring others. Drugs should be treated the same as alcoholic beverages - they should be forbidden to minors, and their use restricted in situations that can result in harm to other people. Otherwise, like alcohol, use of drugs should be regarded as an individual matter of choice. That having been said, however, we must also be prepared to deal with the consequences that will inevitably arise from such a policy: increased drug use, higher medical costs, and the necessary labor of salvaging lives wrecked by drug abuse.

Tim Eagen
December, 1998

1A controlled substance. The word "drug" is itself an ambiguous term with multiple meanings and connotations. In the context of this essay, the term denotes chemical compounds used to effect physiological and/or psychological changes in a human being, and that cause, or are perceived to cause, more harm than benefit to the user. That last point is an important one. The famous 16th century alchemist Paracelsus observed that every substance is a poison, if the dosage is sufficient. Even water, without which life as we know it is impossible, can kill you if you take too much of it. While opinions vary concerning the relative potential for harm in different compounds, there seems to be a general agreement that some are more dangerous than others, and that all can be abused. When the potential for harm or abuse is perceived to be very great, laws are enacted limiting or prohibiting their use. The compound becomes a "controlled substance" or, in common usage, a "drug".

2David F Musto, professor of child psychiatry and the history of medicine at Yale University. Musto has been a member of the alcohol policy panel of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Connecticut Drug and Alcohol Commission. He is mentioned here because he is the author of an article that is one of my primary sources of information for this essay (ref note 4).

3One might form the opinion that politicians, as professional formulators of public policy, are more informed on these issues than entertainers. Politicians, however, are mainly professional orators. A politician's primary skill is the ability to read a speech convincingly, usually written by a member of his staff. Sometimes a talent for rhetoric and writing come together in a man of ideas, and we get a Thomas Jefferson. Obviously, that doesn't happen very often.

4My figures come from an article entitled "Alcohol in American History" by David F Musto, published in April 1996 in Scientific American. Where the author obtained his figures I do not know. Interestingly, our forefathers were far more bibulous than we are today - average annual per capita consumption of alcohol at the time of the Revolutionary War was greater than 6 gallons. Our all-time national high was in 1830, at about 7.1 gallons per person annually.

5These figures come from the Common Sense for Drug Policy web-site, which states that they were derived from US Census Data and FBI Uniform Crime Reports. While the crime facts presented on this site may be accurate, the presentation seems to encourage misleading conclusions. For instance, it is noted that a much larger percentage of crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol than drugs, implying that alcohol is more dangerous than drugs. This may or may not be true, but the larger percentage could easily be due to the fact that alcohol is legal, and therefore cheaper and easier to obtain. Another example is the graph that is used to plot the homicide figures. The "y" axis of the graph, on which the homocide figures are plotted, is elongated in order to greatly emphasize the fluctuations in the homicide rate.

6Recently I had occasion to check out the health-care facilities in the City of Albuquerque that are listed in the telephone directory yellow pages. I was astonished to note that for every full-spectrum hospital listed, there were at least 4 or 5 drug and alcohol treatment centers.

7The sentiment expressed in this phrase (first used, as far as I can tell, by Alexis de Tocqueville in his On Democracy in America) was the subject of a great deal of careful thought by the framers of the US Constitution. How much coercive power should be allowed the majority over individuals within the society? The subject is treated at length by James Madison in The Federalist Papers. Today, "the tyranny of the majority" is often used (or misused) to describe any popularly held opinion that a particular individual may not like - I have heard it used to denigrate anything from the result of an election to the use of perfume.

8A common catch phrase used by libertarians is "you can't legislate morality". I don't know who first came up with that ridiculous assertion, but I wish people would resist the urge to use it. After all, what are our laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft, if not the legislation of morality? Plainly we can and do pass such laws, to protect each other from the solipsistic disregard of an antisocial few. The issue is whether we should pass laws to protect people from themselves.

9In any society in which the necessities of life are easily accessible, and space is easily come by, individualism and diversity are the norm. As populations swell and lebensraum shrinks, and as more and more the well-being of individuals is dependent on the proper functioning of the whole system, the more exact and totalitarian a society becomes, and the greater its desire for strong government. Individualism and diversity of lifestyle become luxuries that cannot be tolerated. Comparing contemporary attitudes with those of the prior century, this seems to be the direction in which we are headed. Reversal of this trend requires a conscious acknowledgment of its existence, and the will to oppose it.