Independence Institute Hosts Drug Policy Debate

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Independence Institute Hosts Drug Policy Debate

by Ari Armstrong, June 2, 2004

It was the cop versus the prosecutor, and both sides shared some surprising opinions about America's drug policies. Bill Ritter, Denver's District Attorney, took on Howard Wooldridge, a 15-year police veteran and a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, in a May 26 debate hosted by the Independence Institute.

Wooldridge said, "All drugs, whether legal or illegal, can be dangerous, and perhaps deadly." He discussed the harms of alcohol and cigarettes, both legal drugs that can have devastating consequences when abused. (Wooldridge earned recognition from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for his efforts to get drunk drivers off the road.) Instead of imposing prohibition, Wooldridge argued, we should turn all drugs into "legal, regulated products." He said the solution, ultimately, is "liberty and personal responsibility... two sides of the same coin."

"I'm not an apologist for America's drug policy," Ritter began. However, he asked us to "count the costs of lifting prohibition." Ritter expressed support for sending low-level offenders to drug treatment rather than prison. Yet he wants strong law enforcement action to attack the supply of drugs and put at least sellers behind bars.

Both men admitted to using the illegal drug marijuana in the past, as well as the legal drug alcohol. Wooldridge said he used marijuana around three times per week until a couple weeks before he joined the police academy. Both men were also willing to take a hard look at current drug laws and consider alternatives. Ritter remains close to the prohibitionist line, though he wants to see demand reduced through treatment. Wooldridge wants to lift prohibition, yet he advocates strong regulations of all drugs, including bans on advertisements. While the gap remains wide between those views, the sides are beginning to find a little common ground. "It's an important public policy debate," Ritter said.

On two points nearly everyone agrees. A person's right to use a mind-altering drug, whether alcohol or marijuana or whatever, ends once the person gets behind the wheel of an automobile. (For now, we can leave aside questions of who should own the roads and enforce driving policies.) In addition, the law may properly restrict minors from buying certain items including drugs, guns, and pornography. (Again we can leave aside the debate over the proper definition of a "minor.") The libertarian case for such legal restrictions is that children do not acquire their full rights until they mature, and parents assume guardianship for some of their children's rights. Wooldridge stressed the point that, if prohibition were lifted, police officers could spend their time enforcing laws against drugged driving and purchases by minors, rather than hauling peaceable, adult pot smokers off to jail.

Ritter's main failing became apparent when Wooldridge asked him if he would favor the return to alcohol prohibition. Ritter hedged. There's "no political consensus" for doing that, he started. But then he turned to another reason for leaving alcohol legal: "many use alcohol responsibly," despite its association with violent crime and other problems.

Most people who use alcohol, then, do not use it in ways that are terribly or obviously destructive, either to themselves or to others. Yet, suggested Ritter, illegal drugs, with the possible exception of marijuana (we may properly "separate marijuana out from other drugs," he said), are generally associated with addiction and other severely destructive behaviors. Yet, in his book Saying Yes, Jacob Sullum describes the "silent majority of users: the decent, respectable people who, despite their politically incorrect choice of intoxicants, earn a living a meet their responsibilities." Wooldridge also suggested this point when he said even users of methamphetamine usually do so "responsibly." He may have overstated his case, but most users are not the sort of fiendish monsters who are the poster children for prohibition.

This past weekend, as I looked at old family photos, including pictures of my great aunt who drank herself to death, it occurred to me that the major problem is what we might describe as an "addictive personality." That is, some small percentage of people will find a way to destroy their lives, will find some outlet for their addiction, regardless of what substances happen to readily available. Certainly many, many people destroy their own lives by abusing alcohol. That's also a problem with drugs like cocaine and heroin (though it seems to be much less of a problem with drugs like marijuana). Unfortunately, American prohibitionists maintain a foolish theory of determinism in which the drugs, rather than the free choices of individuals, are seen as responsible for harm. Yes, it's possible to intervene in the lives of people with problems, if they are willing to change their behaviors, but trying to approach the problem by outlawing certain plants and throwing users of those plants in jail is sheer stupidity. Imposing prohibition to try to "help" the tiny fraction of users who become severely addicted is a bit like imposing chemotherapy on the entire population in order to help the few who have cancer.

Wooldridge offered a reasonable theory to explain why so many in law enforcement fail to see the limited extent of the problem of addiction. All police and prosecutors see are the worst cases. They don't regularly interact with the basically normal, everyday people who use illegal drugs only occasionally or for short periods of time. That's not to say that even occasional use isn't dangerous -- it often is -- but that the level of danger does not justify the police-state tactics of prohibition.

Ritter claimed that prohibition has decreased "casual drug use." I don't know whether his claim is true even for illegal drugs. Certainly government policy has been responsible in shifting drug use, from, say, marijuana to cocaine. Wooldridge pointed out that prohibition probably also shifted drug use from relatively harmless drugs like marijuana to relatively dangerous drugs like alcohol. Yet I don't know how many people die every year from alcoholism because of the prohibition of other drugs. Generally, drug use changes for reasons beyond government policy. Notice that, while the government always takes the credit when drug use declines in any category, it never assumes responsibility when drug use increases in some category.

Ritter didn't explain the distinction between alcohol, which he said can be used responsibly or abused, and illegal drugs, which can be used "casually" or addictively.

Nor did Ritter differentiate between grades of drugs. He claimed that, if prohibition were lifted, more people would use the worst drugs addictively. Yet, as with the lifting of alcohol prohibition, most people used the drug in lower potencies (beer instead of whisky). If prohibition were lifted for all drugs, I don't know whether use patterns would basically stay the same, shift from some drugs to others (perhaps away from alcohol), or increase for the population as a whole. There are at least a couple of reasons to believe drug use may go down on the whole, because treatment will be more available and less stigmatized and resources can be redirected to enforcing age restrictions.

Notably, many of the "costs" Ritter associated with illegal drugs are in fact the costs of prohibition. Because of the violent underground markets spawned by prohibition, the homicide rate is at least a fourth higher than it would be otherwise, estimates Jeffrey Miron. Other crimes are also more common, including property crimes, as Wooldridge pointed out. Ritter mentioned the deaths related to drug use. Yet in most cases these deaths result when users take impure drugs or a dose of unknown potency -- a direct result of making the drugs illegal (as happened with alcohol during alcohol prohibition). Ritter mentioned AIDS, which is spread partly through dirty needles, largely the result of prohibition. In general, either the costs mentioned by prohibitionists are caused by prohibition, or they could be better addressed if prohibition were lifted.

Another obvious cost of prohibition is the shift to more potent, more dangerous drugs, such as methamphetamine and crack cocaine. I suggested to Ritter that these varieties never would have been produced but for prohibition. He missed my point, but the logic is simple. Because of prohibition, dealers want to distribute and sell the most concentrated forms of the drug available. Meth labs are the new rage simply because the ingredients for meth are common -- sold in any grocery store -- and the drug can easily be produced in small quantities practically anywhere. Ironically, prohibitionists point to meth as if its existence proved the need for prohibition, when in fact its existence (in its current "math lab" variety) was caused by prohibition. (Meanwhile, as Wooldridge pointed out, the U.S. government hands out amphetamines to military pilots.)

Ritter said, "I have seen the ravages of drug addiction." So have I. But the ravages of drug prohibition are incomparably worse.

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