What's Obvious I: Legalize All Drugs But Meth   (February 16, 2009)

It is difficult to state what is obvious, but I launch a good-faith effort in a new series this week. Today: legalize all drugs but crystal meth.

The difficulty is stating the obvious is, well, what's obvious to us is not obvious to others until it has reached the very late stage of "undeniable." The coming financial meltdown of the global economy was exceedingly obvious to me and to most of you in 2005, 2006 and 2007, yet the mainstream media only belatedly took notice of "the obvious" in 2008 when major players like Bear Stearns started blowing up.

In the same way, it is exceedingly obvious that we need to legalize all drugs--marijuana, cocaine, heroin, peyote, etc.--with the one exception of crystal meth, a terrifically destructive substitute for the more expensive cocaine.

I have addressed this issue a number of times:

The Worst of All Possible Worlds (April 21, 2008)

Today's exercise: design a policy which produces the following results:

1. fills a veritable gulag of prisons with a half a million nonviolent men and women

2. feeds a global Mafia of unprecedented size, wealth and influence

3. nurtures a ghetto culture of endless turf wars, murder and mayhem

4. despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars, the policy utterly fails to meet its "official" goal of limiting the supply of certain commodities

Congratulations, you've just designed the U.S. "War on Drugs." The failures of this "war" are so monumental that they beggar description. Not only are illegal drugs still readily available, the "war" has spawned a global Mafia which reaps billions of dollars in profits, enabling it to extend its reach into other businesses.

Here at home, inner cities are riven by endless drug-centric turf wars and murders. Pushers are the "big men" in the ghetto, the ones young men and women respect and hope to emulate. In an attempt to render the consequences of dealing drugs so horrendous that people would forsake the immense wealth and prestige to be gained, the penalties for drug dealing and possession have been ramped up to insane "minimum sentences" which exceed those for rape and manslaughter.

More recently, I addressed legalizing drugs in End of Work, End of Affluence IV: Crime and Prohibition (December 11, 2008)

By a wide margin, no policy has failed more spectacularly and at greater cost in human l ives and national treasure than the "war on drugs." No policy runs so counter to well-established research or law enforcement views, yet at the same time no policy is more heavily defended politically as "essential" and "unquestioned."

The "War's" single success is the unparalleled reach of the propaganda machine behind the "war on drugs"/Prison Nation gulag.

Indeed, we have to wonder: how did a policy which has failed so miserably for so long, at such horrendous cost, a policy renounced by the very law enforcement officials tasked with its Kafka-esque prosecution, continue to be so utterly sacrosanct and untouchable?

One answer is of course, "follow the money." An entire Gulag/Prison Nation of well-paid police forces, sheriff's departments and prison guards now feeds off the failed "war on drugs." If the "war" were cancelled as an abject, total failure, then funding for helicopters and other goodies would dry up, and staff would be reassigned to less glamorous work like catching those committing murder, rape, larceny, identity theft, robbery, car theft, burglary, and everyone's least favorite beat, "white collar crime" in which smart guys steal millions with almost no chance of ever being caught and doing time.

Another answer is to look at the structure of "the obvious" and analyze just why repealing failed prohibition is so not-obvious. For that we turn to the 60s-era "radical" psychiatrist and thinker, R.D. Laing, who penned this prescient lecture in 1972: The Obvious:

To a considerable extent what follows is an essay in stating what I take to be obvious. It is obvious that the social world situation is endangering the future of all life on this planet. To state the obvious is to share with you what (in your view) my misconceptions might be. The obvious can be dangerous. The deluded man frequently finds his delusions so obvious that he can hardly credit the good faith of those who do not share them.

What is obvious to Lyndon Johnson is not at all obvious to Ho Chi Minh. What is obvious to me might not be obvious to anyone else. The obvious is literally that which stands in one's way, in front of or over against oneself. One has to begin by recognizing that it exists for oneself.

The study of social events presents an almost insurmountable difficulty, in that their visibility, as one might say, is very low. In social space one's direct immediate capacity to see what is happening does not extend any further than one's own senses extend. Beyond that one has to make inferences based on hearsay evidence, reports of one kind or another of what other human beings are able to see within their equally limited field of observation. As in space, so in time.

Our capacity to probe back into history is extraordinarily limited. Even in the most detailed investigations of small fragments of micro-history, in studies of families, one finds it difficult to get past two or three generations. Beyond that, how things have come to be as they are disappears into mist.

Following that thought: most Americans have no idea of just how dramatically, and completely, the attempt to outlaw alcohol failed in the 1920s. For a brief recap, please read this from the augustly "conservative" pages of the Wall Street Journal: Let's End Drug Prohibition: Most Americans agreed that alcohol suppression was worse than alcohol consumption.

If so many libertarian-leaning conservatives grasp the utter futility and horrendously predictable consequences of the failed "war on drugs," then why is it as politically untouchable as the so-called "third rail of American politics," Social Security?

The point of "undeniability" is rapdily approaching, as the U.S.'s insane "war on drugs" has reached the point of destabilizing entire nations and regions: Latin American Panel Calls U.S. Drug War a Failure (WSJ.com)

I am not suggesting these drugs should be uncontrolled. Common sense suggests that marijuana would be controlled much like alcohol and tobacco, and that heroin and cocaine would be controlled like morphine. We already have a system for dispensing "controlled drugs" which, while not perfect, works pretty well. Elderly patients with severe pain management needs (like my Dad) receive morphine from their local pharmacies; the local heroin junkies could pick up their prescriptions in much the same manner.

Look, the vast majority of us have no desire to stick needles in ourselves and zone out. You couldn't pay me enough to 1) stick myself daily and 2) get zoned out daily. The desire to become addicted is limited by factors we do not yet understand to a specific (small) percentage of the populace. The idea that our entire youth would rush out and get addicted to smack (heroin) if given the opportunity is simply groundless.

If we take away the profit and the "glamour" of a verboten drug, then very few would actively seek such a monkey on their back--and those few who would have already done so. And perhaps surprisingly to those who have little in the way of real-world drug-rehab experience, numerous heroin addicts function rather well in the real world. Statistically, I would wager that on a per capita basis, your middle-class heroin addict functions as well or better by most metrics (holding a job, not physically abusing his family, etc.) than the average middle-class alcoholic.

I know, I know--that's not P.C. and therefore verboten to even suggest. And so is this:

The way to "take out" crack cocaine and crystal meth is to legalize plain old cocaine and make it cheap.

Easily verifiable fact: people zoned out on dope (marijuana) and horse (heroin) do not start fights, drive drunk or otherwise create mayhem. That work is left to those high on alcohol, a fully legal drug with proven nightmarish consequences like 15,000 needless traffic deaths a year and countless murders and rapes.

What is "obvious" to an anthropologist from another culture or a visiting extraterrestrial is that alcohol should be as controlled as morphine and marijuana should be as readily available as tobacco. That marijuana has been demonized is simply political; by any metric (violence, traffic deaths, disease, whatever), it is "obvious" that marijuana is less destructive, less deadly and less addictive than perfectly legal alcohol.

As I have stated here before: the way to "legalize" marijuana is to enable R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies to grow, test, package and market "medicinal marijuana" like they do tobacco.

On the geopolitical scale, it would be phenomenally cheaper and more efficient for the U.S. government to buy the entire poppy crop in Afghanistan and Burma (the Golden Triangle) and the entire coca crop in South America at wholesale prices than to waste untold billions in a painfully foolish attempt to seal 10,000 miles of porous border.

My own rough guess is that the U.S. could buy the entire global harvests of poppies and coca for about 10% the annual cost of the visible "war on drugs", i.e. $5 billion versus $55 billion. And that $55 billion does not include the staggering cost of incarcerating hundreds of thousands of prisoners nailed for dealing or using drugs.

Question for "war on drugs" fans: what does prison do to dumb people caught doing/dealing drugs? It turns them into hardened criminals. Prison is so destructive to its inmates it rather "obviously" should be reserved for violent predators: killers, rapists, muggers, etc. "Club Fed" is a misnomer; no prison is fun and carefree, and for white-collar crimes, and those who manage to run afoul of the law via nonviolent means, low-security prisons free of predators are a common-sense solution to the need to punish these transgressors.

Lagniappe benefit to legalizing drugs: a huge new dollop of "sin taxes." Correspondent Craig M. recently recommended this insightful piece: Popular Delusions blog: Recapitalise the banking system - legalise drugs.

Growing and packaging high-quality organic marijuana/hemp could be a huge cash-crop for the U.S. And unlike most other cash-crops, marijuana (hemp) is hardy enough to thrive in poor soils. The harvest not deemed good enough for medicinal use could be made into clothing, rope, etc.--the traditional uses for hemp.

The list of advantages to ending the absurdly costly and destructive Prohibition on drugs is so long, so obvious, so well-supported that the question now is: can we afford to lavishly fund a failed policy which is not only a supremely ineffectual waste of money but a destabilizing force geopolitically?

For the record: I have no desire to buy or use the drugs mentioned in this entry except for alcohol in the form of wine and beer. I am of legal age to do so. "I am a beer drinker, and I vote."

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