Imagine living in a totalitarian country where motorized transport was forbidden, exposed to it only through media accounts of gruesome car crashes from other countries. You would likely think that anyone who gets behind the wheel of a car must be a complete maniac and you might be less favorably disposed towards the idea that cars should be allowed in your own country. Unfortunately, the image of illegal drug use held by the average American seems very much analogous to this situation. The distraught mother who confronted Gary Johnson at the CNN town hall typifies the coverage which is all that many Americans associate ‘drugs’ with.
This demonization of drugs and drug users which takes place in the media and elsewhere is, I believe, as much a well-intentioned effort at harm reduction as it is designed to sell stories. But creating this narrative has the unfortunate side effect of making rational drug policy politically unviable. For decades it created demand for an absurdly punitive system, something which we will surely look back on as a shameful episode in human history. At present, with the War on Drugs very slowly winding down, popular narratives are still placing a ceiling on the progress we can expect. Sure, countrywide marijuana legalization looks inevitable, a move towards decriminalizing the possession of small amounts is well underway and we may see a variety of other public health measures such as injection clinics, or the allowance of testing centers at festivals introduced over the next few years. But to actually legalize anything other than marijuana seems a distant prospect at the moment. At the CNN town hall, Johnson was right to renounce his actual views and emphasize that marijuana and marijuana only should be legalized. He knows that most of his audience are simply not ready to hear a different message.
To progress more quickly towards a point where we can have this discussion, at least for a few other drugs, reform activists might be well served to adopt a slight change of argumentative emphasis. Yes keeping drugs illegal makes them more dangerous, provides funds for all kinds of criminal activities, and ruins millions of lives through unjust imprisonment. Yes pharmaceutical companies, if allowed, might develop safer recreational drugs, yes the Drug War has racist, puritanical origins, and yes, adults should be free to make their own decisions. These and many others are all good arguments for more liberal policies and should continue to be advanced. I suspect that to most libertarians they are almost stultifyingly familiar. That these arguments are actually even more applicable to ‘harder’ drugs than they are to cannabis would suggest that the widespread acceptance of that drug as ‘safer than alcohol’ has been the key factor in the move towards legalizing it. Indeed, that was the key message of Colorado’s legalization campaign.
Similar argument could be applied to a variety of other substances. Even the most typically vilified of recreational drugs, while far from harmless, are a lot more comparable to alcohol than many realize. Neuroscientist and psychologist Dr. Carl Hart may be the most prominent reform advocate to rely on this method of argumentation, pointing out that the vast majority of drug users do not have a drug problem. Hart need not have relied on dubious laboratory experiments to reach these conclusions, however. World health organization have long agreed with him, albeit reluctantly. As of 2015 they estimated that 90% of illegal drug users were not ‘problem users’. According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, 23% of those who try heroin will become addicted. Other evidence suggests that 16% percent of cocaine users will develop dependence, compared to 13% of alcohol users. Do these figures fit with the image Americans have of these substances? What some may fail to appreciate is that problematic drug use is usually a symptom of other mental health problems and is rarely triggered by mere use of a drug. As journalist Johann Hari puts it, ‘the opposite of addiction is connection’.
So to those who already want to see all or most drugs legalized, I would suggest that the most rhetorically effective argument against prohibition may be an oft neglected one, and perhaps the most banal of all; ‘drugs’ are simply not as dangerous and addictive as most people assume. It’s not surprising that people are reluctant to make these argument. Few wish to encourage a behavior which, at least some of the time, leads to tragic consequences, or to seem dismissive of those who have experienced first-hand the worst harms of drugs. Until it comes to be widely accepted however, that these experiences are the exception and not the norm, my guess is that everything ‘beyond’ marijuana will remain illegal.
* Eoin Perry is an economics and philosophy student at University College Cork, Ireland. In his free time, he enjoys complaining about the government.
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