by Ari Armstrong
This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2004, edition of Boulder Weekly.
Why don't modern drug prohibitionists want to return to the full prohibition of the drug alcohol? One answer, as expressed by the drug czar's deputy, is that there's no political will for that. Another reply is that most people use alcohol responsibly. That's what U.S. Attorney John Suthers said when we met on Reggie Rivers's television show last week, and that's what Denver DA Bill Ritter said at a recent debate sponsored by the Independence Institute.
Yet alcohol obviously can be abused, as CU's football scandal reminds us. As Jacob Sullum reviews in his book, Saying Yes, alcohol is associated with around a third of violent crimes and around two-thirds of domestic-violence cases. "Alcohol is the drug that is most strongly associated with violence," writes Sullum.
Yet, while some people abuse the drug alcohol, most people use it in moderation. Those who abuse the drug (as I did in my younger days) generally learn to stop using it in self-destructive ways. Alcohol, while it has some reputed health benefits, is used almost exclusively for recreational purposes, and often to get drunk. Yet we don't normally see much of a problem with this, at least when we consider adults who don't drive drunk.
If we consider those few who abuse alcohol or become violent when consuming it, is the user to blame, or is the drug to blame? Sullum goes on to argue that, while alcohol is associated with violence, it isn't responsible for the user's behavior. The user's expectations and choices come into play. For example, a guy who gets drunk and beats his wife probably gets drunk for the purpose of beating his wife.
What's true for alcohol is true for all other drugs. Sullum argues that, for all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines, the overwhelming majority of users use the drugs in moderation, and they never resemble anything like the crazed poster-children of prohibition.
Yes, some people abuse all these drugs and become violent or otherwise antisocial while using them. But the users are to blame, not the drugs. Yes, drugs can affect a person's personality. So can an inordinate attachment to zoning restrictions, as the residents of Granby can attest following the bulldozing of several buildings there.
Go rent Reefer Madness. I hear it's coming out in a digitally enhanced version. That movie is a cult classic because it shows the absurdity of anti-drug propaganda. Nobody today seriously believes marijuana makes people do the things suggested by the movie. Yet the same mythology has played out with alcohol, marijuana, and many other drugs.
Sullum calls it "voodoo pharmacology." He challenges "the idea that certain substances have the power to compel immoral behavior." It's no accident that drug use (at least the use of certain politically-targeted drugs) is often compared to demonic possession. The pseudo-scientific equivalent is a crude determinism that denies human free will.
A half-truth seems to make the prohibitionists' case plausible. Some drugs are worse than others. Only a self-destructive fool would consume methamphetamines produced in a modern "meth lab." Where cocaine grows naturally, locals chew on it much like Americans consume the addictive drug caffeine. Coors is a more innocuous form of the drug alcohol than what was produced in toxic "alc labs" during alcohol Prohibition.
And that suggests the core problem is prohibition, which spawns impure production of more potent drugs. Sullum points out "amphetamines were available without a prescription until 1954," yet it is prohibition that has created the problem of meth labs and the most destructive forms of amphetamines. It's a self-perpetuating cycle: prohibition creates all sorts of social problems, which the prohibitionists then use as a pretext to expand prohibition.
But, the prohibitionists argue, people who take drugs sometimes drive dangerously, abuse their children, and commit crimes. Yes, and this is true of the drug alcohol, too. The proper recourse is to address all those crimes directly, and lift prohibition for all drugs.
All drugs can be used self-destructively. And all drugs can be used in moderation. Of course, one can argue that even the moderate use of some drugs is immoral or harmful. But that's how the issue should be addressed: by doctors and community leaders, with spiritual guides, among friends, in reasoned discussion. Not by the prison-industrial complex.
The fact that alcohol is so often abused is not an argument for the prohibition of that drug. People have a right to consume alcohol, they usually do so in moderation, and prohibition is a cure orders of magnitude worse than the disease. The same goes for all other drugs.
People are not the play-things of drugs. Instead, people choose whether and how to use drugs. "Addiction is a choice," as Dr. Jeffrey Schaler puts the matter, and that applies to television, sugar, and irresponsible sex as well as to drugs. The "demonic possession" theory of drug use is false. Eventually, a saner society will view drug prohibition in much the same way that we view things like witch burnings.