Heads vs. Feds: Drug War Another Regulatory Failure

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Heads vs. Feds:
Drug War Another Regulatory Failure

by Ralph Shnelvar, May 1, 2003

Last night (April 30), I went to a debate sponsored by the Boulder Initiative to Relegalize Cannabis and Hemp (B.I.R.C.H.).

About 900 people attended this event. I would say that it is a safe bet that 99% of the people there wanted pot legalized.

The debaters were Steven Hager, Editor-in-Chief of High Times, and Robert Stutman, a 25 year veteran of the DEA.

As a Libertarian I, of course, want the War on Drugs to end. Nonetheless, I was impressed with Robert Stutman's valiant effort to defend the indefensible. I wish I had the time to debate both debaters -- but, alas, I was not invited to do so. This article, though, gives me an opportunity to respond to both sides on various issues.

Hager (High Times) implied that "Natural is good and should not be regulated." Stutman correctly called Hager on this point: Arsenic is naturally found compound but it certainly is not good; especially in drinking water. It is this author's opinion that the government has a proper role in regulating arsenic levels in drinking water because of first, second, and third-party pollution effects; especially third-party pollution effects.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was Robert Stutman's dramatic admission that he feels that putting people in jail for consuming any substance is stupid. No one asked "If you don't put the consumers in jail then how do you choke off demand?" I suspect that he would interdict on the supply side. How would he, then, stop people from growing their own?

I was deeply disturbed by Steven Hager's anti-economic-freedom arguments. Clearly Hager wants the government to leave us alone when it comes to religion and pot (He actually believes that his spirituality is enhanced by pot and, therefore, the government should leave him alone on religious grounds. I feel that that is not a bad argument at all but it subsumes the broader argument that people should, generally, be free of government controls.)

Nonetheless, Hager clearly does not like the fact that our health care system is a for-profit enterprise.

How sad that he rails against some government bureaucrats who want to take away our right to put various things in our body yet he wants to give other government bureaucrats the authority to regulate who gets what health care.

Robert Stutman made several anti-freedom statements that just made me cringe. He pointed out that not all human behavior that is non-violent is right. He said that, for example, polygamy is wrong.

He said that if we made marijuana legal then - in order to reduce the profitability of drug trafficking - we would need to make all drugs legal. To this, Brian Schwartz may have made the evening's most cogent comment when he said to me, "Well, duh, [what's wrong with that?]."

Robert Stutman also defended the FDA by pointing out that thalidomide created 11,000 malformed children. What he said was that there was only a single time that the FDA did not do clinical testing of a drug and that drug was thalidomide. He said that in that single instance we ended up with the tragedy of those 11,000 malformed children.

There are, of course, at least three things wrong with Stutman's argument.

The first is that people placed their trust in government. This is a misplaced trust. Had there been no FDA then pregnant mothers would have made far more rational bets on what drugs they should take.

Second, Stutman's implication is that since the FDA has not tested pot, there is a good chance that pot will have some sort of tragic thalidomide-like effect. After at least 6,000 years of humans using marijuana, I seriously doubt that pot has any severe negative effects.

Third, the FDA has killed far more people by denying safe drugs to Americans than it has saved. In a oft-cited 1985 study,

[T]he delay and large reduction in the total number of new drugs has had terrible consequences. It is difficult to estimate how many lives the post-1962 FDA controls have cost, but the number is likely to be substantial; Gieringer (1985) estimates the loss of life from delay alone to be in the hundreds of thousands (not to mention millions of patients who endured unnecessary morbidity). When we look back to the pre-1962 period, do we find anything like this tragedy? The historical record-decades of a relatively free market up to 1962-shows that voluntary institutions, the tort system, and the pre-1962 FDA succeeded in keeping unsafe drugs to a low level. The Elixir Sulfanilamide tragedy, in which 107 people died, was the worst of those decades. Every life lost is important, but the grisly comparison is necessary. The number of victims of Elixir Sulfanilamide tragedy and of all other drug tragedies prior to 1962 is very small compared to the death toll of the post-1962 FDA.

And an article on Free-Market.net states:

While the FDA is supposed to guarantee the safety of new drugs brought to market, the costs of delay are often overlooked. In 1986, Dale H. Gieringer of the Decisions and Ethics Center at Stanford University reported, "The cost of a mere one-year delay in new-drug approval can be estimated at as much as 37,000-76,000 lives per decade -- several times the worldwide toll of all new-drug accidents."

For a morbidly droll example of bureaucracy run amok at the FDA see http://www.boogieonline.com/revolution/body/health/fda.html.

I can also highly recommend David Friedman's comment about the FDA:

"...in 1981...the FDA published a press release confessing to mass murder. That was not, of course, the way in which the release was worded; it was simply an announcement that the FDA had approved the use of timolol, a Beta-blocker, to prevent recurrences of heart attacks. At the time timolol was approved, Beta-blockers had been widely used outside the U.S. for over ten years. It was estimated that the use of timolol would save from seven thousand to ten thousand lives a year in the U.S. So the FDA, by forbidding the use of Beta-blockers before 1981, was responsible for something close to a hundred thousand unnecessary deaths."

Yet we, as a society, continue the insanity by killing people with the kindness of "government knows best." Whether it is the FDA's War on New Medicines and Medical Devices or the flip-side War on Drugs, more people are killed by indirect and direct government action than by just letting people take responsibility for their own actions. Isabel Patterson, in her 1943 book God of the Machine, called people who promote these government regulations "humanitarians with a guillotine."

My FDA digression, above, is yet another example of an important lesson that I would like all libertarians to learn: Statists - whether on the political left or right - always find it easy to point at the benefits (e.g., lives saved) of a particular government program. It is extraordinarily hard for libertarians to point at the costs of those programs.

In the War on Drugs - whether it be the FDA or the DEA - the costs of regulation are the same: the death of vast numbers of innocents outweighing the deaths of those innocents being protected.

There is an interesting practical political twist to the above digression. So I digress, yet again, to a conversation I had with Ken Gorman (the legal marijuana legalization advocate in Colorado) after this debate. We were discussing his 2004 initiative to get Colorado out of the War on Drugs with one of the organizers of the debate.

This young man wondered out loud if such an initiative would have a chance of passing in Colorado and whether the legislation should be drafted to just make marijuana legal rather than all drugs.

Ken said (and I'm paraphrasing), "I've spoken to a lot of old people; people who actually go out and vote. They tell me that they will not vote to legalize marijuana unless they can also vote to legalize access to all drugs. They view the FDA as their enemy and this is the way we can end both of these awful wars in Colorado."

Robert Stutman also made at least two errors of fact. This author had the honor (quite by accident) of being the last questioner and I called him on those errors.

The first error was Robert Stutman's assertion that marijuana smoke enters the lungs at a temperature three times higher than tobacco smoke. This statement is nonsense and I pointed out that it is just plain pseudo-science: there is no such thing as "three times a temperature". The audience chuckled.

I imagine that only a handful in the college-educated audience even understood why "three times a temperature" makes no scientific sense. It is, though, easy to understand. Consider the Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales. Think about the freezing point of water (0C/32F). Three times the temperature of frozen water on the Celsius scale is still 0C frozen water. On the Fahrenheit scale it's 96F; an uncomfortably warm temperature for this author. If one assumes, instead, the Kelvin scale (where 0K is absolute zero) and that the temperature of cigarette smoke is room temperature (295K) then three times the temperature would be about 900K, or about 1160F. 1160F is 400 degrees higher than the melting point of lead and just a bit less than the melting point of aluminum. Absurd!

Stutman gave one of the all-time-great-lame answers. "Hey, I didn't say that. A peer-reviewed journal [he did cite the name of the journal] said that. Argue with them." I wish I had the opportunity at the debate to respond and bring home the point: If you don't understand the science then don't quote the journal.

Robert Stutman also said that the Mafia (organized crime) existed before Alcohol Prohibition and that the reason that Alcohol Prohibition was finally repealed was that people got sick of the corruption.

I called him on this one, too. He then gave the audience a revisionist "history" of the period; unfortunately, I did not get an opportunity to point out the blatant flaws in his revisions.

I'll address the flaws here.

First, organized crime was far less organized before the introduction of Alcohol Prohibition. The corruption of the police and courts was far less pervasive. The use of automatic weapons in the commission of crimes was virtually unknown prior to Alcohol Prohibition but was introduced by gangs in gang-on-gang warfare.

Americans did not vote to end the War on Alcohol because of the corruption. They voted to end Alcohol Prohibition because the experiment was a dismal failure. People wanted to drink and they were going to make it legal no matter what the negative effects were going to be because they understood first-hand that the negative effects of the War completely outweighed the negative effects of Demon Rum.

I have to compliment Hager: he did a very credible job of listing the negative societal effects of this unconscionable War on Drugs.

At one point in the debate, the argument touched on how much money was being spent on the War on Drugs. Hager claimed it is $500 Billion dollars a year. Stutman, the consummate apologist, said it was only $150 billion.

To understand just how huge even this lower number is, the national average cost of a home in November 2002 was $236,000. That's 635,000 homes PAID IN FULL. Compare this to the 1.6 million total housing starts in 2001 (see www.mbaa.org/marketdata/data/01/starts_annual.html). Of course, the vast majority of those 1.6 million homes have 15-year-or-more mortgages.

If one believes Hager's higher number then every single home built in America in 2001 could have been given to someone for free. If one believes Hager's higher number then every single home built in America every year could have been given to someone for free if the money was rerouted to free homes and away from this massively destructive War on Drugs.

Not that I, as a Libertarian, would ever advocate that kind of socialism. But it would be a far, far better use of the money than the throwing of valuable economic resources down the rat hole of government intervention in the marketplace.


Ralph Shnelvar is a member of the Colorado Freedom Report's Board of Advisors.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.freecolorado.com