Still-Evolving Thoughts on Drug Policy

Note to Readers: Circe’s Potions, Crimes and Punishment and Still-Evolving Thoughts on Drug Policy are presented below; all three are about drug policy. Read in the order in which they were written, they provide a window into my changing perspective on an exceptionally difficult set of issues.

Circe’s Potions (originally posted in January, 2013)

America has a serious drug problem, but government can’t solve it.

Astonishing numbers of Americans are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Who among us hasn’t seen an addict or alcoholic burn off all of his relationships with other people and gradually lose himself in the process? I know many people, young and old, who have alcohol problems; probably the reason that I know fewer who have drug problems is that such problems are often better hidden. By all accounts, meth, cocaine and opiates (“prescription painkillers”) are being abused all around us.

It is widely reported that the numbers of Americans who are dependent on drugs has risen dramatically in recent years. This raises some important questions: why are so many Americans turning to drugs and alcohol? And what is to be done about this phenomenon?

As to the first, it is essential to start with an understanding that to most people, mood-altering drugs, including alcohol, feel really, really good. They might make you act stupidly, but they will quite reliably make you feel good inside – for a while. Different drugs are well known to cause different types of longer term damage, but one of the salient characteristics of addled minds is that they do not look down the road to consider that damage; indeed, over time they may lose the ability to do so. Addled minds just want to feel good now; like those of Odysseus’s companions who consumed Circe’s potions, they become swine.

There are innumerable ways and reasons that people become addicted to mind-altering substances. Some work their ways into dependency slowly and without realizing it. Some seem predestined by their DNA to react with instant and nearly unquenchable craving once exposed to a particular drug or alcohol high. Accordingly, many people, even some with everything to lose, have always succumbed to these cravings – eventually losing themselves in the process. These roads lead to sad and damaged minds, and to lasting sorrows for family and friends.

But that has been true since before Homer’s time. So why – now and over the last few decades – are so many more of us losing ourselves in these good feelings of the moment, at the expense of our relationships with others and of our longer term hopes?

I believe that our drug epidemic is largely the result of the widespread loss of forward-looking, generally religiously-based values, of the atomization of society, as people have come to have closer relationships with their televisions and computers than with their families and friends, and of a general loss of a sense of meaning. If we truly love both others and ourselves, our brains will automatically work overtime to consider the consequences of our actions, and fewer will succumb.

Most drug abusers and heavy drinkers probably know that their actions might cause terrible consequences some day, but that day seems far off, and the imperative is now. The trick is for all of us – or as many of us as possible – to make decisions in light of a longer term perspective, because now will be gone in a moment.

For most of us, good values, love and a sense of purpose strengthen our defenses against the temptations of instant gratification. Those defenses are weakened today, as evidenced by the rapid increases in such dependencies. Viewed in this light, the drug epidemic is as much a symptom of underlying changes in society as it is the problem.

I submit that government is very bad at forcing us to consider the longer term effects of things we do to ourselves. We instinctively deny the authority of others to judge the ill effects of such actions, so we resent and ignore laws that try to do so. Moreover, it is not the government’s job to protect me against myself; I am not the property of the US government.

Government’s ineffectiveness in matters of personal self-governance was amply demonstrated in Prohibition; and we are re-learning that lesson today in the War on Drugs. Not only is the attempted enforcement of drug laws by the police ineffective, it has numerous seriously adverse unintended consequences. The number of deaths related to the war on drugs is truly staggering, both here and abroad; respect for the law is much diminished; many addicts commit crimes against others to fund their habits; lives are ruined by arrests for even comparatively minor harms perpetrated by individuals against themselves; and the very existence of these laws probably makes rebelling against them seem cool to hormonal teenage brains. And the War on Drugs has demonstrably failed to achieve its stated goals, just as Prohibition did before it.

We have collectively decided – through the repeal of Prohibition – that it is not the job of the government to tell me if I drink too much (with the exception of drinking and driving, which is readily distinguishable because doing so puts others immediately at risk). In my view it is the job of my family, friends and colleagues to tell me if I drink too much, just as it is my job to tell a family member, friend or colleague if he drinks too much; such warnings and the individualized consequences that follow them, if unheeded, are a sign of love and of our interconnectedness. Why should other drugs be different?

I might add that it is one of the government’s core functions to help me protect myself against harm from others, and vice versa. I should be free to harm myself, but if I harm you the law should punish me severely. So taking a drug – or attempting suicide – should not be a crime; but harming others should invite swift, severe and consistent retribution. (And driving while impaired should constitute a very grave crime whether or not injury results, because I have no right to put you at increased risk).

Short of adopting Mao’s “solution” of organizing a police state and shooting all the addicts, Government can’t solve our drug problem. In a (mostly) free society, people will find ways to do to themselves what they choose. The War on Drugs was, and is, a huge mistake.

Drug and alcohol dependencies are both a chemical/medical issue and a social/values issue – with the particular mix of contributing factors varying from person to person. Some of the solutions will be medical in character, and some will involve helping people to see themselves, others and the future more clearly.

I am painfully aware that the previous sentence is inadequate as a response to the question: what is to be done? I am also pretty sure that there is no single answer to that question, and particularly that there is no solution that can be imposed on us by the government. The problems are individual, and the solutions are, too. And for many of us, they involve re-examining our values.


Crimes and Punishment (posted 4/5/14)

This week a young man of whom I have personal knowledge was arrested for possession of heroin.

Of all the posts I have written, Circe’s Potions is the one about which I have agonized the most. I reread that post this morning, and I couldn’t find anything that I had written with which I now disagree.

Even so, my gut reaction to his arrest challenges the libertarian principles set forth in Circe’s Potions: my instinct is that the young man in question is probably lucky to have been arrested. He is an adult (barely) and was not harming others, so according to my principles, if not the law, he should have been left alone – but perhaps the arrest and the possibility of some time in prison will help him see the world more clearly, and lose the habit that might otherwise kill him. I see his arrest and possible imprisonment not as punishment for the “crime” of hurting himself, but as a possible treatment for his problem.

Does my sadly hopeful take on the young man’s arrest mean that I now think (contra Circe’s Potions) that opiates – which are very widely abused, both here and abroad – should remain illegal, the subject of a worldwide cat-and-mouse game between governments and the governed? No, but opiates should only be legal for people who are truly adult, and some of the context in which they are used should change.

Drug addiction is not a crime in the usual sense of the word because the “victim” and the “criminal” are one and the same. If fully-formed adults wish to fry their brains, or be alcoholics, or be morbidly obese – or commit suicide more directly – I don’t believe that the government has the right to try to stop them. As long as we are not hurting non-consenting others, we should be free to do to ourselves whatever we desire; we are not the property of the state. (The same general principles apply to sexuality, as articulated here). Further, the successful implementation by the government of the role of protecting us from ourselves would require a full-blown police state.

There are many actions that are legal for consenting adults that are, and should be, forbidden to children, though. We do not let children vote, drink or have sex (particularly with adults) for the perfectly sound reason that we wish to protect them from the effects of decisions of which they cannot be expected to understand the consequences. Surely opiates should be on the same list.

But where is the line between childhood and adulthood? On sexual matters, I believe that the age of consent is 16 in most states; the age for seeing R-rated movies is nominally 17 (I write “nominally”, because the reality is that a kid with a computer can see whatever he or she wants); at 18, one may vote and volunteer for the military; drinking is permitted at 21 and young people may be kept on their parents’ insurance plans until 26. It seems that there is a gray area between childhood and full adulthood that stretches from ages 16 to 26.

So where should we draw the line on drugs and alcohol? (Let’s face it, alcohol can be as serious a problem as opiates; it, too, is an often-harmful drug, though its context is quite different). I am not at all sure that I have the answer, or that the answers shouldn’t be different for different drugs.

Coming back to the troubled young man, I wish it were the case that his family could tell him to stay clean, rejoin the family and earn his keep or be on his own and probably starve – such a turn of events might be expected to awaken his survival instincts and force him to adhere to rules for long enough to come to understand them; but the safety nets that we have put in place for all ensure that he won’t starve irrespective of his choices. In fact this particular young man, from a financially well-off family, first became addicted while living away from home and on public assistance. Under our present system, the taxpayers can be expected to provide enough to keep him alive and the government will imprison him if it catches him with drugs. So he can drift into Hell on the taxpayer’s dime, one way or the other, and needn’t listen to his family or anyone else.

Chairman Mao’s answer to China’s problem with opium addicts was to have them all shot. He was a barbarian (and like others of his ilk, was lionized by much of the American left). American society, rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions that prize each life, would never, and should never, countenance such a “solution”.

Most of my posts that deal with clear-cut issues conclude with a resolution that I find satisfying. In this case, I don’t have such a resolution. Our least bad option seems to be to decriminalize drugs for adults and keep them illegal for those who are not truly adult (up to age 26?). For youths who have made bad decisions, the taxpayers are clearly willing to pay for the “treatment” of incarceration, or presumably other treatments if they work better. We are already doing so.

I don’t presume to know why this young man turned, or others turn, to drugs; certainly, there is a very long list of reasons that people do so. I do know that we are not the Red Chinese; while people breathe we hold out hope of their recovery and redemption. But hope for recovery shouldn’t mean that we act as enablers, so I would be inclined to redraw the entitlements map to partially withdraw the safety net from those adults who are engaged in self-destructive behavior, while forcing treatments on children and near-adults.

Perhaps we could make make food stamps and housing assistance contingent on regular, clean drug tests. Doing so would strongly discourage self-destructive behavior, and keep taxpayers from acting as enablers. Of course, the charitably minded would doubtless still try to help adult addicts and alcoholics; but their assistance would be understood as a revocable blessing, rather than as-of-right.

Giving or selling drugs (or alcohol) to a minor should remain illegal, and be severely punished, but as adults we should be free to make our own decisions as long as we are willing to live (or die) with their consequences.

All of that said, punishment for crimes against others should be swift, sure and severe.


Still-Evolving Thoughts on Drug Policy 2/9/18

Having just reread the above posts for the first time in years, I feel compelled to mention that my thoughts about the decriminalization of drugs continue to evolve away from the broadly libertarian perspective that I set out in Circe’s Potions and modified in Crimes and Punishment. The principles of personal liberty still guide most of my thoughts – on this matter as on others – but as my concerns about the practical effects of decriminalization have grown, so has my willingness for the state to play an active role in trying to tamp down the problem.

Drug policy is clearly something we’re doing wrong in my view – we have too many drug abusers, and too many of them are incarcerated for what is, in the end, self-harm. The question, then, is how to discourage drug use (or, to put it in more libertarian-friendly terms, to make its true personal costs apparent to those who are thinking of using) without using the penal system to warehouse people who have harmed themselves, but not others.

A start down this road was suggested in the final paragraphs of Crimes and Punishment, and I still like those ideas, specifically: making entitlement payments of various sorts contingent on clean drug tests and harshly punishing those who sell or distribute opiates or their substitutes (or alcohol) to minors, with the age of majority in this matter perhaps being set at a later age than 21. I think that these are sound ideas, but worry that they do not go far enough. Before going on to suggest other measures, though, allow me to defend the idea of making entitlement payments contingent on clean drug tests against some obvious objections:

The first objection is that such a change in policy would be unequal, and therefore unfair, in its application because poor people who depend on housing, food or health assistance would be deprived of those things for abusing drugs, whereas the well-off would face no comparable punishment. Additionally, such deprivations might seem flat-out cruel. These are fair criticisms.

For such a policy change to withstand scrutiny, the abuse of drugs would still have to be unlawful for all  (note that this is a change from the ideas expressed in my two previous posts on the topic) and the argument made that the government (or rather, our fellow citizens) shouldn’t feel any moral need to subsidize those who flout its laws. Such a policy, if enforced, would present an extremely powerful, non prison-time disincentive to the poor regarding drug abuse. A case can certainly be made that drug abuse makes re-entry into the world of work and self-reliance vastly less likely, which helps make the proposed policy more readily morally defensible. Finally, the inequivalency argument would be at least partly vitiated by the reality that most large employers (of the better-off) already test for drugs, and fire abusers straightaway; this is not state action, but it surely has the effect of being a punishment (and thereby a disincentive to abuse drugs in the first place).

Given that eliminating some entitlement payments to drug abusers would depend on the continuing illegal-unless-properly-prescribed status of such drugs, there would still need to be some direct enforcement of the general prohibition. As previously noted, I would support extremely harsh penalties for those who deal drugs to minors; I also see no reason that harsh penalties (with the harshness depending on amounts and circumstances) shouldn’t be levied against those who illegally sell or distribute drugs to adults. I just don’t see the justification for punishing adults who buy drugs for their own use and do not endanger others in their manner of use by, for example, driving while impaired.

So outside of medically approved uses, opiates would still be illegal but, other than by refusing to subsidize their use via the entitlements system, most recreational users would not be punished by the state. We would continue to try to limit the supply of such drugs by imposing harsh punishments on dealers.

Which, come to think of it, is not so far from where we are today on the de facto drug policy in many states. The biggest differences would be in discouraging drug abuse by the poor through the entitlements system and openly treating most recreational uses as misdemeanors.

For the record, I still believe – as set forth at length in Circe’s Potions – that our bugeoning problems with drug abuse are more a symptom of our troubled culture than its cause. I’m just more willing than I was to support our government’s efforts to address the symptom, which in this case has a nasty habit of circling around back to add fuel to the already-burning cultural fire.


M.H. Johnston

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>