Friday, July 07, 2006

Is Legalizing Drugs a Good Idea?

Over at the Leiter Reports, Jo Wolff (UCL philosopher and JMP board member) has an interesting post on the legalization of drugs (full text: here). An exerpt:

"I’ve been reading The Legalization of Drugs: For and Against, by Douglas Husak and Peter de Marneffe. Fascinating stuff... Simplifying dramatically, Husak’s argument is that even if it can be shown that taking drugs is very bad for you, it is still hard to see the argument for locking people away, sometimes for many years, as punishment for harming, or risking harm, to themselves. In response, de Marneffe’s first restricts the discussion primarily to heroin, and argues, plausibly enough, that it is a very bad idea for adolescents to take heroin as this will adversely affect at least their emotional development, and perhaps much else too. It is also very bad for children if their parents are addicts, as this is likely to lead to abuse and neglect. These risks are so severe, he argues, that they amount to an argument that heroin should not be legalized.

So how does de Marneffe respond to Husak’s argument? It seems he accepts it! (p. 129) He agrees that no one should go to prison for taking heroin. On de Marneffe’s view production and sale should be illegal, including dealing, but no one should be punished simply for using. And if this applies to heroin – de Marneffe’s worse case – it must apply more generally."

Jo then concludes with the following question:

"Now, if the ‘for’ and ‘against’ positions converge on the judgement that no one should be jailed for using drugs, does this merely mean that de Marneffe was simply the wrong person to argue the ‘against’ case, or is it rather that there are no good arguments to defend the current law in all civilized countries?"

And then a good intuitive puzzle:

"On the issue of harm, here are some fascinating figures from a UK report, which quotes a Cato Institute Paper. The following are ‘Deaths from Drug Use Per 100,000 Drug Users’. Tobacco: 650. Alcohol: 150. Heroin: 80. Cocaine: 4. Marijuana: 0. (p. 38 of overview report).
Of course I know it isn’t as simple as this, but these are thought-provoking numbers."

What can be said in response? Well, let's start with the numbers and move backwards. I am not sure they tell us much at all. It is true that (a) where something causes many deaths we should look at it seriously and (b) there are plenty of relevant, important harms other than death. (And I'd be curious to know if the cocaine death figures are for powder cocaine or if it includes deaths from crack cocaine.) Many people die each year from bee stings, but we can't outlaw bees and allergies----this truism points to the fact that we simply can't regulate as well as might like some considerable harms to people.

That said, we can say more in response. My liberal heart is for legalization insofar as regulation of the illegal drugs trade seems a terrific goal. Many of us enjoy legalized drugs of different sorts---alcohol, tobacco, etc.---and it would seem extending this would be a great idea. People can overdose and die from drugs like alcohol or drugs like heroin. With regulation might come greater public awareness of risks: this seems a good thing.

On the other hand, in practice, I know that I would much rather be walking down a street with people a bit tipsy from drink than a street littered with bloody needles and heroin addicts. Just because we allow one vice does not necessarily mean that we should allow all vices. We have enough trouble with alcohol and tobacco---extending legalization may well expand the problem.

In the end, I'm a liberal sceptic. I would vote for legalization, but only if heavily regulated and monitored. I would do so reluctantly as well. The issue seemed so clear cut when I was a teenager...

3 comments:

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Michael Rinella said...

Drug legalization arguments often facile because they fail to consider anything more than a crude "yes/no" legal standing for recreational intoxicants. Such arguments frequently work in favor of prohibitionists. A truly informed policy must have several extra dimensions.

1. Some substances could be legalized, but marketed in safer forms, or lower dosages.

2. Some substances could be legalized, but not in their present form. Essentially they would be replaced by a new, safer, synthetic version.

3. Once it is understood that not all use is abuse, or leads to the classic disease model of addiction, one would expect a whole new range of recreational pharmaceuticals would be created, that have nothing to do with today's crudely made substance, many of which date back a century or longer.