In the words of Russ Belville, be careful what you wish for. Marijuana “legalizers” (they are really regulators!) like Mason Tvert have successfully made the case that we should regulate marijuana because it is safer than alcohol. Mason has eyes on continuing this campaign in California (and perhaps other states as well). Although he is certainly correct that it is safer, his argument is a dangerous one because it insinuates that we should not regulate more harmful drugs like cocaine or heroin, but instead maintain their prohibition. Granted, although ending all prohibitions is not currently feasible, we are making tremendous strides in drug reform and must look ahead to future. With that in mind, I have written a critique of this “safety” argument. We shouldn’t regulate drugs because they are safe, we should regulate them because they are potentially harmful.
Most of us drink coffee, enjoy wine or beer, eat refined sugar and consume medications for what ails us, yet rarely do we challenge the monolithic premise that drugs are bad. The Drug Czar, many government agencies, and the press warn us of an “alarming trend” when drug use increases. Prohibitionists defend this attitude by the fact that drugs sometimes cause harm. Conversely, in 2006 there were 42,000 deaths caused by automobiles, more than the 30,000 annual deaths caused by all illicit drugs combined, yet nobody thinks cars are bad. We are not warned about an alarming trend in increased car use. Quite to the contrary, Americans love cars. The President after bailing out the automotive industry encouraged Americans to buy more cars! And we accept the deaths they cause as a necessary and unfortunate by-product of an essentially beneficial activity. Meanwhile, the annual death toll resulting from cars has decreased from 42,000 in 2006 to 36,000 in 2009. We accomplished this not by moralizing or discouraging use, but through effective regulation and the installation of driver and passenger airbags as well as airbags in side panels. Cars are wonderful tools which sometimes cause harm, and we reduce their harms through regulation. Why don’t we feel the same about drugs?
This attitude is not unique to cars. Knives are one of the leading causes of emergency room admissions; this too we accept without urging people to reduce their knife use. And so it goes for airplanes, electricity, contact sports, swimming pools and beaches, surgery and medicine and most other potentially harmful activities. We accept without question that the dangers of these activities are inevitable. Nevertheless, dangers are greatly reduced (if not effectively eliminated) through regulation. Despite their inherent dangers, we do not believe that any of these things are essentially bad and must be discouraged at all costs, or even at all. To the contrary, we expand our choices of all of these dangerous activities while making them less dangerous through regulation. Why don’t we feel the same about drugs?
In fact, we do not prohibit any of the activities which cause the most harm to society. Instead, prohibitions skirt all the massive social threats and target those on the fringes. The following data are generally verifiable with a Google search and/or on the Center of Disease Control website:
Approximate annual death rates:
All illicit drugs: 30,000
Cars (2009): 36,000
Cars (2006): 42,000
Pharmaceutical drugs: 100,00 – 150,000
The premise that we prohibit activities because they are dangerous does not hold up to scrutiny. Moreover, many dangers are a self-fulfilling prophecy of prohibitions. Prohibited and socially stigmatized activities are driven underground and into back alleyways, making them unwholesome and increasing, if not creating, harm. Prohibited markets are, by definition, surrendered to and controlled by criminals. Prohibitionists then tout these dangers and seediness to justify their prohibition: a never ending cycle. Homosexuality is a case in point. There is nothing intrinsically dangerous or unseemly about homosexuality. Prohibition drove it underground, into questionable and desperate meeting places such as outlaw bars, bathrooms and abandoned or desolate parks, where unsafe sexual practices are more likely to occur, especially when frank and open discussions of safe sex and healthy relationships are discouraged by a general attitude of shame, stigmatization and outright prohibition. Prohibition has had this same chilling effect on the safe use of drugs.
Heroin overdose is caused by our drug policy, not by the drug itself. Overdose is the result of users not having access to pure drugs of known dosage dispensed by health professionals. Because of shame, ostracization and criminalization, marginalized heroin users have less access to rehabilitation and medical assistance. At the turn of the century, the typical heroin and opium addicts were white, church-going, gainfully employed, tax-paying male farmers and white, church-going, middle-class Southern women. These addicts were neither a burden to society nor morally bankrupt. The materialization of a burdensome and unwholesome drug user is a self-fulfilling result of prohibition and its paradigm of marginalization perpetuates our justification of persecuting the sick and addicted.
Detractors object that unlike cars, airplanes, electricity, etc., recreational drug use serves no important function and is only harmful. Since civilization began, humans survived without cars, airplanes and electricity, and will continue to do so once these temporary inventions are supplanted by superior ones. But since time immemorial, there has never been a drug-free society (with the exception of Inuits who had no access to drug producing plants because they cannot grow in the Arctic). Prohibiting consensual adult activity that is quintessentially human is immoral, for it makes it a crime to be human. Prohibiting drugs is no less futile than prohibiting language or religion, for humans cannot exist without them.
How can we reasonably regulate inevitable, consensual adult behavior to maximize benefits and minimize harms? How can we expand personal freedoms, while creating regulations which make us safer? This has worked with almost every harmful activity in which we engage. Why do we presume it would not also work with drugs?