A few days ago, over at Crimlaw, Ken Lammers, whom I admire, had a few things to say about the idea of legalizing drugs. Ken starts by quoting Pope Francis, whom I admire somewhat less. (Hey, what can I say? I was raised a Lutheran, and the First Rule of Lutheran Club is the Catholics are wrong.) When it comes to drugs, the Pope is (no surprise) an old-school anti-drug conservative:
Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!
No, but that’s not really the point of legalization.
Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise.
It appears that His Holiness hasn’t quite passed the word to the rest of the team. The Catholic Church, to its credit, runs rather a lot of addiction rehab facilities, and they take a different view. One of the first addiction recovery services I found, Catholic Charities, Diocese Trenton, has this to say about addiction: “No matter which kind of addiction, it is important to recognize that addiction has nothing to do with one’s morality or strength of character.”
In fact, the overwhelming sentiment toward addicts by the people who treat them is one of compassion. For the Pope to imply that they are evil goes against the basic principles of addiction treatment, including the addiction recovery services offered by his own church.
But perhaps I misunderstand. Perhaps the Pope is distinguishing between the addict and his or her addiction. Perhaps the latter is evil, and the former is only its victim. Hate the sin but love the sinner and all that. Fair enough. But under those terms, those of us who favor legalization are also trying to help the sinner.
To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem. Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called “recreational drugs”, are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.
If the Pope believes that, then the Pope has a limited understanding of the desired effects of drug legalization. If all currently illegal drugs were legalized tomorrow, I wouldn’t use any of them. I want drugs legalized because I want the police to stop sending armed SWAT teams to raid homes and shoot dogs. I want police to stop shackling people and hauling them off to be locked in cages for years. I don’t want legalization because I want drugs. I want legalization because I want the police to stop killing innocent pastors and setting babies on fire. That would be a “desired effect.”
Substitute drugs are not an adequate therapy but rather a veiled means of surrendering to the phenomenon.
I don’t know enough about addiction therapy to say whether methadone and other substitutes are an effective treatment for drug addictions. But I’m pretty sure the Pope’s plan to lock drug users in cages is not therapy either.
Here I would reaffirm what I have stated on another occasion: No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that. No to any kind of drug use. But to say this “no”, one has to say “yes” to life, “yes” to love, “yes” to others, “yes” to education, “yes” to greater job opportunities. If we say “yes” to all these things, there will be no room for illicit drugs, for alcohol abuse, for other forms of addiction.
On this I personally agree with the Pope. I’ve said “no” to illegal drugs all my life, and I plan to continue to do so. I rarely even drink booze, and that’s legal. Where we differ is that I don’t want to force my lifestyle on other people.
Ken Lammers has some commentary of his own:
…I find this to be a distillation of my personal beliefs about drugs. Legalization is unlikely to do the user much good. It will just switch the dealer from some guy on a corner to some guy behind a 7-11 counter.
Ken apparently doesn’t see any contradiction between those last two sentences. Buying drugs of uncertain origin, purity, and composition from a guy whose real name you don’t know is a dangerous way to get high. A drug user would be much safer buying a carefully manufactured product from a storefront backed by a corporation that wants to preserve the value of its brand and which can be hit with a multimillion dollar class-action lawsuit if the product is defective. I’m guessing that will do drug users a lot of good.
Also, the guy behind the counter at 7-Eleven isn’t going to wrestle him to the ground, throw the cuffs on, and haul him off to jail. That’s also good.
And I doubt that any cocaine producing Columbian cartel could ever match the predatory nature and capabilities of Big Pharma. After all, the Medellin cartel can’t run ads during the super bowl or deliver its product to every single grocery store, pharmacy, and convenience store in America – Proctor & Gamble (pepto bismo) and Bayer (aspirin) already do.
Here we come to a more profound difference between my views and Ken’s (or the Pope’s). I think that having digestion aids and pain medication conveniently available just a few minutes away is one of the advantages of our modern civilization. The Walgreens down the block stocks thousands of items — canned soup, milk, batteries, shampoo, condoms, light bulbs, toys, memory cards, makeup, candy — and it’s open 24 hours, so I can get what I want, when I want it. I think making high-quality recreational drugs available on the same basis is a good thing. It’s certainly better than having the manufacture and distribution of recreational drugs controlled entirely by criminals.
Anyone who believes addiction will decline in such an atmosphere is either naive or choosing to turn a blind eye to reality.
One distinction that seems not to be recognized by the Pope, and maybe Ken Lammers, is that drug use is not the same as drug addiction. People can use drugs without becoming addicted or ruining their lives, and there are far more casual drug users than addicts, even for relatively scary drugs like meth and heroin. When it comes to a less dangerous drug like marijuana, millions of people have proven that safe use is possible. Plenty of marijuana smokers have gone on to have normal, successful lives, including the current President of the United States. And his predecessor. And the one before that.
The risk of arrest and prison is part of the cost that the drug user pays when deciding to consume illegal drugs, so legalizing drugs is the economic equivalent of lowering the price. In addition, everyone in the supply chain incurs a risk of arrest and prison just for handling the drugs, and they all demand compensation for the risk, which results in a high price for the final consumer. So legalizing drugs will also reduce the actual price charged to consumers. Economics 101 tells us that lowering the price will increase the consumption, so I fully expect drug use to go up if drugs are legalized.
Whether drug abuse or addiction will also go up is more complex question. If some percentage of drug users are destined to become drug addicts, then increasing the number of users will increase the number of addicts, assuming that the new users are just as likely as the original users to develop addiction problems.
On the other hand, industrialized production and distribution will reduce impurities and variations in quality, reducing health complications and making overdoses less likely. And I think that increased social acceptance will make it less likely that drug users will be excluded from their communities, less likely that they will have trouble finding jobs, and more likely that they will be able to get help when they need it, especially since they can ask for help without fear of being arrested. Even for those who are addicted, the low cost of recreational drugs will reduce the financial burden of addiction. Finally, legalized drugs will directly benefit both casual users and addicts by eliminating the risk of arrest and imprisonment, and the reduction in enforcement efforts is a benefit in itself — no more late night raids, no more innocent grandmothers getting shot, no more puppycide.
I believe that legalizing drugs will probably increase drug consumption, but I think it will also reduce the harm caused by drugs, including the harm caused by law enforcement agencies and the justice system. That’s why we sometimes call it harm reduction. I suppose it is a “compromise,” but it’s not a compromise with evil, it’s a compromise with reality.
The Pope, on the other hand, seems to be engaged in magical thinking: He apparently believes that if we say “No to every type of drug use” then people won’t abuse drugs. He doesn’t seem to realize that his version of saying no necessitates the creation of a massive government program of spying on citizens, violently assaulting them, and throwing them in cages.