The War on Drugs: Graft-Versus-Host Disease

Since it has been mentioned in the last two posts, a full post on prison and drug reform seems warranted.  Eventually, I’d like to discuss the social/economic impact of the current criminalization of drugs, but first I’d like to consider the moral and ethical questions surrounding the issue.

First, why is it illegal to consume certain substances?

It’s not.  Its illegal to possess drugs, but from what I understand consumption is not punished (at least not by itself, if you are on parole, applying for a job or driving a car you can be punished for consumption).  Of course, it is impossible to consume without possessing, so this seems like a moot point.  Philosophically, however, this means that drugs are illegal apart from question of whether adults should be allowed to do with their bodies as they see fit.*  Similarly, distribution is subject to greater punishment than mere possession, because that is the act of inciting illegality.  The real crime of drug possession, is disobeying the express will of the paternal state.

So on what basis does the state declare drugs illegal?

While the actual history of how and why drugs were criminalized is frequently absurd and racist, there are several rational arguments for drug prohibition.

For example, it could be argued that drugs are a public health issue, akin to extreme seat-belt laws.  As drugs are controlled by the Food and Drug Administration, whose role is to ensure the health benefits of consumable products, this seems to be the governments position on the subject.  That drugs are illegal because their consumption is a public health concern is unconvincing because many of the least healthy drugs are legal.  If criminalization was to ensure that the public was insulated from damaging substances, than the legal drugs would have more nutritional merit.

That drugs inspire criminality is tougher to dispute, but such a claim is complicated by the fact that drug use itself constitutes criminal behavior.  Plus, many other things inspire criminality, including sporting victories and election to local political office. Surely it is best to just punish people for their criminal behavior, rather than create new once removed criminal behaviors to punish them for.

Perhaps the best reason for the illegality of drugs is the violence that accompanies the drug trade: from drive by shootings to Mexican assassinations to cocaine and poppy financed FARC guerillas and Taliban fighters.  It is undeniable that if you purchase illegal drugs (well, marijuana, opiates or cocaine anyway, who knows where the trail of the stuff sold at Phish concerts leads) then you are a participant in a violent and oppressive chain.  But the question has to be asked: does the criminal control of the drug trade have anything to do with the fact that drugs are illegal?  We have one example of what happens after a drug is legalized in alcohol prohibition.  During prohibition criminal gangs controlled the sale of alcohol, but after alcohol legalization traditional industries undercut the high-prices bootleggers charged and soon the criminals were pushed out of the market (fortunately, drugs would soon be criminalized so they wouldn’t be without work for long).

Would drug decriminalization serve as a panacea to the problem of crime?  Clearly not.  However, illegal drugs are a huge industry (estimates vary from $300-400 billion dollars a year globally) and all of the profits go to criminals, by definition.  Decriminalization would cut deeply into these revenues, provide a modest, but not negligible, source of tax revenue and end the need for the incredibly expensive drug war.

Perhaps the best argument against drug criminalization is the state should not be the business of locking people up for most of their lives for non-violent drug offenses.  Prison populations have swollen until America has the largest prison population in the world, a fact that should cause every American great shame.  That the state, which was created for the protection of individual citizens would now imprison millions of them for non-violent crime seems like the equivalent of Tobias Funke’s graft-versus-host disease, the implant is attacking the body.  We should be able to do better.

*I do not understand how a person could be pro-choice on abortion and in favor of drug criminalization.  It is the exact same argument: personal choice and the control of one’s body.  Plus, you get to sanctimoniously say “I wouldn’t do it personally, but I can’t decide for other people” in both cases.

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2 Responses to The War on Drugs: Graft-Versus-Host Disease

  1. MAR says:

    good post, but dude you skipped over the health concerns way too glibly. While a simple cheap comparison with tobacco, saturated fats, and alcohol is fun, and may apply for weed, coke, ex, etc., its facile for all drugs.

    Health concerns can take two forms: can this substance be taken in moderation (applies to our ‘legal drugs)? And when taken in moderation, does it cause behavior that can be dangerous to others?

    Let’s take the first question. The tiniest amounts of crack and meth cause ridiculous highs. These aren’t things that you can take over your lunch break and come back to work (a good simple test, I think). Thus these drugs have very short routes to the high, which I think drives addiction. And addiction (including to tobacco and alcohol) most definitively is a public health problem.

    Second question. Compare meth and booze. Both can lead to a high where the imbibers are dangerous, violent, unpredictable, and irrational. But to get that drunk requires A LOT of work. It simply isn’t that easy, and many people just don’t get there. Anyone can be psychotic on meth with very little of the substance.

    I just thinks that all drugs are not equal, and thus you cannot lump them all into the same discussion. Finally, no-one has ever tested any of these drugs in the kinds of low-dose, long-term exposure that causes lung-cancer from tobacco. Most heroine/crack etc. users don’t take these drugs for as long as cigarette smokers (they either quit or die), so what if they are 5x, 10x, 20x the carcinogens that tobacco is? We just have no idea, and just releasing them on the public with a label “use at your own risk” isn’t satisfying.

    • joebenaiah says:

      I admit that is glib to compare heroin and meth to twinkies, but the fact remains, saturated fat kills a hell of a lot more Americans than meth does. We turn a blind eye to all of the shit that actually does us in, but overreact to things that are relatively minor problems. The fact that people grow out of taking hard core drugs (or thankfully die) supports that they aren’t paramount health problems, while the pervasive lifelong abuse of cigarettes, booze and food leads to chronic health issues that drive up health care costs, lower life expectancy and generally are a pain in everyone’s ass.

      Further, while it’s true that meth and crack use leads to anti-social behavior, there has to be a better solution than locking drug-addled street people up indefinitely. I want to do a post about prison and drug reform from an economic and statistical perspective where I will go into this in greater detail, but the HOPE probation program in Hawaii is pretty remarkable. Addicts are put on a high intensity probation where they have to call their probation officer every day to find out if they have a drug test that day, they are drug tested at least once a week and any slip up result in a couple of days in jail. So addicts are given structure and accountability, with clear consequences and something like 70% of them successfully graduate from the program at a fraction of the cost of prison. Plus, they actually get a chance to rebuild their lives.

      As for your point about how much work it takes to get drunk, well, its a labor of love as we both know.

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