Just arrived back home safe and sound. Sorry there hasn’t been a new post in several days, but just at the moment my family needs me more than the Bar and Grill does.
Dr. Dave has graciously stepped into the breach, with some observations on Libertarianism and the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. A thousand thanks, Dave. I’ll be back on deck presently.
When I was in my early 20s my Dad told me about Milton Friedman. Friedman was perhaps the most brilliant economist of the 20th century. He had a lot of ideas that give bleeding ulcers to today’s ruling class elites. Given his “druthers” Friedman would eliminate more than half of the federal bureaucracies. One of Friedman’s ideas concerned America’s drug policies. This one stuck in my head because I was just about to go away to college. This was over 30 years ago. As I look at the situation today I realize that Friedman had it right. The government has no right to tell you what you can take into your own body.
One might believe that recreational drug use is immoral. Perhaps it is. Lots of things are “immoral” from certain perspectives. Consider prostitution, gambling, alcohol, tobacco, abortion, pornography, welfare, personal injury law, politics, etc. In each case the “morality” is subject to definition by the affected party. Personally, I don’t care if you want to bet the farm at the Blackjack table or drink yourself into a stupor. I don’t care if you smoke yourself into an early grave. I don’t care if you watch dirty movies. I don’t care if you buy sex or even if your daughter becomes a whore. I don’t even care if you choose to abort your unborn child. These things don’t directly affect me. I may not agree with them but in the end they are YOUR choices, not mine.
This is where traditional conservatives and libertarians part company. Conservatives want to cling to and impose their own beliefs and values on others. They want their moral judgment to be the law of the land. In many respects this is not unlike Sharia law. It is what is “morally” right as determined by dogma. This isn’t a matter of relativism. If gambling is morally “wrong” then it’s just as “wrong” in a Las Vegas casino as it is playing poker with your buddies on a Saturday night. Pornography is just as morally reprehensible on your computer screen as it is in a seedy adult book store or a strip club. Legal prostitution in a licensed Nevada brothel is just as morally wrong as picking up a hooker on a New York street corner. Getting shitfaced drunk in your own home is just as bad as having too many drinks at a bar. Our elected officials openly “sell” their votes to bring back pork to their own districts and the electorate smiles and nods. The bottom line is – you can’t legislate morality.
The best that government can do, and all it should do, is prevent citizens from harming each other. If you carefully peruse the Constitution you will find nothing that gives the federal government the right to prohibit an individual from ingesting anything. Back during Wilson’s presidency the country still recognized this archaic notion of the Constitution. That’s why in 1920 it required an amendment to the US Constitution to enact Prohibition. Oddly, this was the only drug prohibition that was enacted legally. All other restrictions on drugs enacted during the 20th century were unconstitutional (this includes all prescription drugs). The government falls back on the specious claim of “public safety” to justify everything it has done since. This is bunk!
As a nation we should have learned a lot of lessons from Prohibition. Apparently we did not. Prohibition grew out of the temperance movement of the late 19th century. By the early 20th century enough of the nation’s population was convinced that the consumption of alcohol was morally wrong. The idea was that if alcohol was banned entirely a veritable utopia would result. As we all know, this is NOT what happened. The reality was that the population still wanted to drink alcohol and they did.
Prohibition did not address demand, only supply. As a result bootlegging, smuggling and moonshining flourished. Organized crime flourished. There were bloody battles in the streets over the illicit trade in alcohol. Organized crime became very wealthy and powerful. Despite the 18th amendment and alcohol being illegal, folks still wanted to drink. And they did drink. Alcohol consumption actually increased during the 13 years of Prohibition. The term “jitterbug” actually refers to symptoms of delirium tremens…acute alcohol withdrawal. Producing, distributing, possessing or consuming alcohol was a crime. Yet for 13 years people continued to consume alcohol. They wanted to.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 alcohol consumption increased for a year or two, then decreased to pre-prohibition levels. Prohibition didn’t result in any town losing their town drunk nor did it in any way affect the incidence of alcoholism. Prohibition was an abject failure. It was a movement motivated by an ideology rooted in “morality”. It might have been a great idea – but you can’t legislate morality. Where is the line? Wine with dinner or shitfaced drunk on whiskey?
So what about all the other horrible drugs? This is an interesting story. Until the 20th century nobody cared what you chose to put into your body. In the late 19th and early 20th century there was some concern over heroin use. At this time one could buy heroin, hypodermic syringes and needles through the Sears catalog. There was some drug abuse but it wasn’t a widespread societal problem. The USA had a bunch of opiate addicts following the Civil war but these poor souls really didn’t present much of a problem. After all, you could readily buy opium, laudanum and eventually heroin in any corner drugstore without a prescription. Opium (and heroin) became “illegal” as a result of racism. They really wanted to rid the west coast of the “filthy Chinese” back in the early 1900s so they made opium (and other opiates) “illegal”. They didn’t really make them “illegal” they simply “licensed” the sale and distribution of opium and other opiates and levied a tax. The cute trick was that the government controlled who was licensed to sell opium. Cocaine followed soon after because it was believed blacks in the south were getting coked up and raping white women. In both cases it was all bullshit and “public safety” had absolutely nothing to do with the policies. But nobody really cared. After all, it was just a bunch of “niggers and chinks”.
By comparison it took a long time for marijuana to become “illegal”. Marijuana was made “illegal” in 1937 (during the Depression). This prohibition was in response to the influx of Mexicans in the southwest seeking work. This created direct competition for employment during the Depression. Consumption of marijuana was deemed “illegal” and the Mexicans were run off. Again, there was never any real concern for public safety.
The country plodded on through WWII and the Korean war with a relatively uneventful change in national drug policy. During this time the big pharmaceutical concerns became involved. These companies had patents they were keen to protect. Prescription only drug laws were enacted. It’s actually amusing to look at from today’s perspective. From 1935 to 1960 we really didn’t have all that many profound discoveries in the area of pharmacology. We had a few antibiotics; penicillin, tetracycline, streptomycin, sulfa and chloramphenicol. We had barbituates. We had amphetamines. We had opiates and cocaine. We had all the OLD drugs discovered and described during the last 100 years (e.g. atropine, epinephrine, insulin, quinine). We had developed a few other drugs but nothing like the tidal wave that would start in the 1960s. But the prescription only paradigm defined their use and availability. This protected the financial interests of the drug manufacturers, physicians and pharmacies. To a lesser extent, it served the purposes of “public safety”.
The 60s were an interesting time. There was a virtual explosion in drug development. LSD was one of these drugs. Despite over a half century of research, LSD remains a poorly understood drug. Ask your physician or pharmacist to explain LSD’s mechanism of action to you and I’ll bet they can’t tell you. LSD is arguably the most potent psychoactive drug ever produced by man. As little as 200 mcg (i.e. 1/5 of a milligram) will produce profound effects in humans. LSD has variably been described as a hallucinogenic, a psychedelic and a psychotomimetic (i.e. a substance that produces a mental state that mimics psychosis). From what I’ve read, none of these descriptions are entirely accurate.
There are a lot of hallucinogenic or “psychedelic” drugs. Most fall into one of two pharmacologic classes; substituted amphetamines and indolamines. The indolamines are tryptamine derivatives and include such drugs as psilocybin and a bunch of botanical drugs from South America. The amphetamine class includes such drugs as mescaline, ecstasy, and a slew of other “designer” drugs. But LSD is an ergot derivative and appears to be unique. Contrary to what you might read in the media, most users of LSD find the experience pleasant and enjoyable rather than frightening. Very few have bad experiences with the drug. Pharmacologically the drug produces a profound adrenergic effect manifested as decreased appetite, increased blood pressure, increased wakefullness, dilated pupils, etc. Subjectively it is reported to produce visual hallucinations which manifest as “patterns and trails” and general euphoria. There are some unique characteristics to LSD. It is not addicting. Most users do not report wanting to take the drug again the following day. Although it is extremely potent, LSD actually appears to have little abuse potential compared to drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol or nicotine. Believe it or not, they had this all figured out in the 60s.
Nixon was a paranoid SOB. He was certain that the reason kids didn’t want to be drafted to go die in the jungles of Vietnam was related to drug use. These damn kids were smoking pot and dropping acid. Nixon gave us the DEA and the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. This is the point where you should really start paying attention. In 1970 the federal government codified the stripping of personal liberties. Somehow in 1970 the federal government decided it could tell you what you could legally ingest. All “morality” justifications aside, this was a pivotal time in our history. Nixon effectively declared our “war on drugs”.
In 1969 the country had a minor drug problem. By 1979 we had a major drug problem. Most of this was due to our national drug policies.
Marijuana consumption began increasing in the 1950s. Cocaine had a limited and somewhat defined market in 1970. Its use was anything but widespread. The same is true for heroin. Heroin had its own niche market before 1970 and its use had only increased incrementally since the 1950s. Methamphetamine use was primarily limited to truck drivers until the 1980s. Marijuana and LSD use became very popular in the 60s and early 70s. But the policies enacted in 1970 had an effect similar to that of Prohibition in 1920. Drug use became “naughty” and “hip”. The speakeasies of the 1920s attracted a lot of folks who might otherwise have had no interest in alcohol. It was “hip” so they drank. Beer became unpopular because it was bulky and difficult to smuggle so distilled spirits became popular. Beer drinkers became whiskey and gin drinkers. Prohibition actually created a new criminal class.
What happened after Prohibition was repealed? Well…the government regulated and taxed the alcohol producing industries. Organized crime lost their stranglehold on alcohol. The behavior of literally millions was instantly decriminalized. There were no more bloody “booze” wars. And the people…they just kept drinking…a little, a lot or not at all. Prohibition did not really change the proportion of the population who consumed alcohol nor did it really affect alcohol consumption in general. We still had drunks and alcoholics just as we did before Prohibition. Nothing really changed except that organized crime became very wealthy and very powerful as a result. In the end Prohibition created far more problems than it was supposed to have solved.
And it appears we learned nothing from this experiment. For the moment let’s limit the discussion to marijuana legalization. I’ve only heard two good arguments against marijuana legalization. The first (and best) is that there is no reason we should willingly allow another intoxicant into our society. This argument has merit, I believe. No substance or activity that alters one’s perception of reality is good for you. This goes for everything; alcohol, tobacco, drugs, dangerous activities like skiing, skydiving, auto racing, etc. The other is that cops don’t have a ready method to determine if you’re stoned or just stupid. This is obviously the weaker argument.
There is a definite difference between alcohol and marijuana. One can consume alcohol without necessarily becoming impaired. Impairment is the whole point with marijuana consumption. Many people know the difference between two beers and six beers. After two beers you can still do your taxes, after six beers you shouldn’t drive to the store to buy more beer. Marijuana is more dichotomous. You’re either stoned or you’re not. I’m sure there are varying degrees of “stoned” from a mild buzz to wasted, but in the end the whole point of consuming marijuana is to get high. But here is another difference. The marijuana user is acutely aware that he is impaired. The person consuming alcohol may be oblivious to the extent of his impairment. This happens all the time. People have a few drinks and don’t realize how drunk they are until the cop that stopped them explains it to them while slapping on the handcuffs. The guy stoned on pot is more likely not to drive because he realizes he is stoned. He orders a pizza instead.
Either way impairment is not a good thing. But for the free individual it is a free choice. In reality there is little difference between drinking four beers and smoking a joint in the privacy of your own home. How is one “moral” and the other “immoral” other than by declaring one legal and the other illegal? I drink beer but I don’t smoke pot. Does this make me a hypocrite? I don’t think so. Many decades ago I smoked pot. In fact, I used to like it…when I was a kid. One day it dawned on me that I really didn’t enjoy being high on pot. I swear, the stuff makes you stupid and lazy. So I stopped smoking it. Over the years all of my friends who also smoked pot quit. This was not some sort of “morality awakening”, we just all outgrew it. In reality it’s not much different than being a little drunk except that you’re hungrier and lazier. Marijuana does not produce some sort of “magical” buzz but it is perhaps a less belligerent buzz. You don’t see a lot of fist fights among pot smokers.
Believe me, I’m not holding the Netherlands up as a shining example of how things should be, but they legalized marijuana many years ago. They haven’t had any trouble because of it. In fact, a study conducted revealed that fewer under age youths smoked pot after they legalized it. One Dutch official said they had managed to make marijuana “boring”. I have no idea if this is true or not but I do know that even when the drinking age was 18 in Michigan it was easier for a 17 year old kid to score pot than a six pack of beer. There are no legal age limits for illegal drugs.
The number of Americans who have tried marijuana or used to smoke marijuana is astronomical! The number who currently smoke marijuana is much, much smaller. The number who regularly smoke marijuana is even smaller. The number who smoke it daily is smaller still. But in the end we still have a whole bunch of pot smokers in this country. They smoke pot even though it is (mostly) illegal. Personally, I think the notion of “medical marijuana” is a load of crap. It does have some distinct pharmacologic activity. It has been demonstrated to produce an antiemetic effect, but it is not nearly as effective as modern antiemetics such as ondansetron. It does stimulate appetite. It has anxiolytic (i.e. anti-anxiety) properties but nothing anywhere near as potent as the benzodiazepines (e.g. Valium). It does, indeed, lower intraoccular pressure but only at high serum concentrations. In order to be effective for the treatment of glaucoma one would literally have to constantly smoke pot and remain stoned around the clock. Its analgesic activity is about the same as Tylenol. In short, I ain’t buyin’ any of the “medical” excuses for marijuana. Mostly the stuff just gets you stoned.
Now…before I embark on my argument to legalize marijuana, let me just say that I’m firmly ambivalent. I really don’t give a shit if pot is legalized or not because it does not directly affect me. It does, however, indirectly affect me via my tax dollars. Marijuana is (mostly) illegal. You’re committing a crime if you grow it, possess it, sell it, distribute it or use it. Rather any of this makes sense or not is utterly immaterial. Currently it is illegal. But even still a whole bunch of folks consume it. Marijuana is also the #1 most used illegal drug in the country. Marijuana trade is #1 in dollar volume in the illicit drug trade.
Marijuana consumption is not good for you nor is it harmless. Chronic use can be detrimental to one’s health. This is true for virtually every psychoactive drug from alcohol and nicotine to heroin and cocaine. I think it is appropriate, however, to compare it to alcohol. In general the effects of marijuana will diminish faster that those of alcohol in typical doses. Marijuana does not produce a condition of physical addiction. There is almost no potential to overdose on marijuana. Marijuana use is associated with far less violence than alcohol use. In typical doses marijuana produces a state of impairment approximately equal to the ingestion of about 100 mL of ethanol. In many respects the two drugs produce very similar effects. Some are quick to point out that marijuana is a “gateway drug”. It probably is, but no more so than the more likely culprits of alcohol and tobacco. In the defense of alcohol, one can have a couple of beers after work and not forget what you were talking about.
The arguments for the legalization of pot have little to do with its activity as an intoxicant. Perhaps the best argument is the purely Libertarian one. The federal government has no right to tell you what you may or may not ingest. This is a matter of Liberty. A free citizen should should have the freedom to make the choice to eat trans fats, put salt on food, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, sniff lacquer thinner…or smoke marijuana. Another good reason is simply grounded in reality. Millions of Americans consume marijuana even though it is illegal. Its legal status apparently serves as little impediment to its use. We learned this lesson with alcohol during Prohibition. For decades we have been fighting a losing war against the inevitable. This “war” is also incredibly expensive. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year in law enforcement time, our justice system and incarceration on just marijuana alone. Where are the benefits?
At present there is absolutely no evidence that the incidence of marijuana use would significantly increase if it were legalized. I’m sure there would be a transient spike as more of the curious tried it, but much like alcohol when Prohibition was repealed, it is likely that the number of marijuana users would settle back to where it is today. It is also possible that the alcohol industry might suffer somewhat as some recreational users switched from alcohol to marijuana. The potential as a source of tax revenue cannot be overlooked. Taxes on alcohol generate a huge amount of revenue. Another important advantage is that it would literally destroy a huge segment of the illegal drug trade that results in billions of dollars leaving this country every year. The same thing happened with alcohol in 1933.
Although I doubt it will, I am hoping Proposition 19 in California passes. We really need a test case and California would be a good one. It would finally provide an opportunity to objectively evaluate what impact legalization would have in the real world. We could honestly assess the financial, legal and societal implications and then make decisions based on empiric data rather than conjecture.
In the end, neither the Democrats or the Republicans want legalization. Being opposed to it gives each side the claim to the “high moral ground” despite all the rest of their hypocrisy. In addition there are literally billions and billions of dollars invested in keeping marijuana illegal. More people are threatened by this than is immediately obvious. These include a vast array of law enforcement personnel and their associated bureaucracies, thousands of lawyers and judges, jails, prisons and the entire corrections industry, etc. Oh…and let’s not forget the marijuana smugglers and trafficers. In the end it would be a good experiment to try. If it fails it can be corrected, if it succeeds we will have learned an important lesson. Either way, at least we know the truth.