The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- Ivo Vegter
- 31 May 2011 07:50 (South Africa)
In atonement for the grave sin of violating a core principle of liberty, the right to get stoned, today's column is all about, well, the right to get stoned.
There are numerous reasons why it should be legal to manufacture, distribute, sell, possess, and use drugs. And by “drugs”, I mean not only relatively harmless drugs like marijuana, but drugs with dangerous physical, emotional and social consequences, such as tik, cocaine and alcohol.
There is no legitimate reason for a government to impose itself on you by force, unless you have violated someone else's right to life, liberty or property.
There is no philosophical basis for supposing that the discovery, possession, mixing, or storing of one particular chemical substance ought to somehow be unlawful, while the exact same actions involving some other chemical substance is just fine.
There is no basis for believing that the government has a right to protect you from yourself. Government exists to protect you from me.
If you want to do inadvisable things, like climbing sheer rock faces, injecting yourself with heroin, investing in pyramid schemes, jumping out of aeroplanes, carving your true love's name on your soft parts with a razor blade, using homeopathic remedies, binge drinking, committing suicide, or even riding a bicycle, then go right ahead. Caring, civic-minded people might try to discourage you, but they have no right to call upon the force of the state to stop you.
Only if you bleed on my carpet, if I sold you insurance, or if the bicycle belongs to me, do I have cause for complaint.
One often hears sad tales of how drug abuse affects other people, and therefore there is a legitimate right for state intervention. Even if drug law enforcement was a solution to this problem, the argument is weak, however. Laziness also affects other people, and often in much the same way. So does bad temper, alcoholism, bad eating habits, or standing on a box instead of an SABS-approved stepladder when screwing in a light bulb. The responsibilities one has in life towards others may be serious, but they are not the proper province for nanny-state interference. Slippery slopes rank second only to your home for places you don't want the government's armed forces to be.
It is true that drugs are often associated with crime. This is not surprising, when you criminalise drugs. The same holds for anything that the government bans. Ban liquor, and you're sure to get moonshiners with fast cars in exciting gun battles with police. Ban books, and you'll be swamped with seditious intellectuals and romantic revolutionaries. Ban gambling, and you'll get tailored mafia bosses running numbers rackets and poker halls full of vice and violence.
Making something illegal only makes it more profitable as a business risk. The criminalisation of drugs is often the cause of drug-related crime, rather than its solution.
Drug laws are also open to both deliberate and unintentional abuse by the police. It is easy to frame someone by planting drugs on them if mere possession is a crime. It is easy to entrap an innocent citizen who may be desperate for cash but hadn't planned on resorting to crime. In one famous US case, a man was charged for stocking up on anti-histamines for his son's trip to a church camp, after the government tightened the controls on medicines that could be used to manufacture illicit drugs. That South Africans have to sign registers every time we buy cough mixture ought to scare us silly.
What about the effectiveness of drug laws? The very idea is laughable, of course. Every few years, we have a new “epidemic”. First it's opium. Then cocaine. Then pot. Then LSD. Then heroin. Then crack. Then mandrax. Then ketamine. Then meth. Face it. People love drugs.
Despite years of often harsh drug law enforcement, 15% of all South Africans have a drug problem, according to the Central Drug Authority of the Department of Social Development. It once ranked fourth in the world for drug crimes per capita, though the most recent UN data curiously makes no mention of South Africa.
The government argues for continued criminalisation of drugs on the basis of public health, but its own statistics show alcohol to be by far the most harmful drug in terms of public health, while fully 80% of all drug cases involve marijuana, which has never, like, killed anyone, dude.
This is not an argument for banning alcohol, but evidence that the principles behind drug legislation are inconsistent, and that legislation is in any case powerless against drugs and drug use.
Those who want drugs will get them, in any of a thousand ways the state cannot control, even with dangerously intrusive surveillance. Drugs are classic examples of price inelasticity: addicts will pay whatever it takes. They don't respond to price signals, and the few who can't afford drugs will just turn to glue.
The police just give drug users reasons to brag about the clever ways in which they evaded the law in manufacturing, buying, or hiding their stash.
A case study is instructive. Let's consider methamphetamine.
Though forms of it are used as medicine for the treatment of conditions such as obesity and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it is essentially the same stuff we know as “tik”. It can be snorted like cocaine, inhaled as vapour from a glass pipe, or injected intravenously. It is fairly easy to make, using chemicals that are easily and legally obtainable in cold, flu or allergy medicine, household cleaning products, batteries or hardware store solvents.
In 2005, in the US state of Montana, 50% of all incarcerations were related to meth. One might think that this vast extent of government force deployed against the miscreants who possessed, sold or used this drug would have made it a model state. After all, that's a lot of people who aren't on the street stealing cars and dealing to school kids.
But no. In 2005, the state ranked fifth in the US for meth abuse. Half of all foster-care children were there because of meth. The infamous War on Drugs had left behind it nothing but a scarred battlefield of traumatised victims.
The reason for selecting Montana as an example is that it is the home of the Meth Project. This private initiative was founded by Thomas Siebel, late of Siebel Systems fame and now chairman of the First Virtual Group.
Siebel's approach appears to recognise that threatening people with violence and prison might not be the best way to convince them meth use is dangerous and undesirable. On the contrary: threats only further alienate likely drug users from the mainstream of society. Instead, the Meth Project embarked on an extensive campaign of marketing, education and outreach, across all media, aimed at discouraging first-time use.
Unlike the War on Drugs, the Meth Project can claim impressive results. Montana now ranks 39th in the nation for meth abuse. Teenage use has declined by 63%, and adult use has dropped by 72%. There has also been a 62% decrease in meth-related crime.
Although hailed by the US government, the achievements of the Meth Project are none of its doing, and contradict its entire policy of making war on its own citizens for the mere possession and consumption of recreational substances.
Ultimately, none of the arguments for making drugs illegal hold water.
The best case against outlawing drugs is a moral one. No government ought to have the right to protect you from yourself. Or, in Thomas Sowell's immortal line: “When your response to everything that is wrong with the world is to say, 'there ought to be a law,' you are saying that you hold freedom very cheap.”
There once was a presumption that free people could not be subjected to search without reasonable suspicion that they had committed actual crimes. Today, houses and businesses get raided and individuals get stopped and searched with impunity by a police force that strikes fear not only into actual criminals, but also into innocent citizens who cause no harm to anybody.
A more utilitarian argument against the nanny state, and in favour of personal liberty even in respect of drugs, can be phrased in the words of Herbert Spencer, a 19th-century English philosopher and political theorist: “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.”
Although the philosophical reasons are sufficient to reach a conclusion on a subject such as drug legalisation, there are more practical arguments based on both public health and crime prevention. By criminalising drugs, you increase their value as a means of revenue and medium of exchange, giving genuine criminals a means of furthering their crime.
By declaring drug users to be criminals, you push them across a psychological boundary in their relationship to society and the law. Many drug users have nothing but contempt for the wisdom or moral authority of the law. It would be unfair to generalise, but once an outcast, it is a small step to real crime with actual victims.
It is hard for someone who is by law a criminal to avoid public health risks that they'd never normally be exposed to, such as sharing needles or accidentally ingesting poison. It is impossible for such a person to take lawful action against theft, extortion and other rights violations that occur in criminalised sectors of society.
Worst of all, it is hard for such a person to seek help in confronting addiction. It is hard for those who suffer as a consequence of the addiction of a loved one to take action, without exposing them to draconian criminal prosecution. The government's “multifaceted approach” to drug addiction is, quite frankly, not credible when one of those facets is incarceration enforced at the barrel of a gun.
By making drugs illegal, the government unintentionally exacerbates almost all the ills one usually associates with their use.
Sowell said that tolerating imperfections is the price of freedom, which leads me to a final point I ought to make about drugs.
I strongly oppose drug abuse. It is not my place to judge people who use them, nor do I object to their use, even in my presence. However, when asked, I discourage even casual, recreational use in no uncertain terms.
Being an addict is not smart. It is not cool. It is not good for your mind, body, relationships or finances. Even when drugs don't kill, they ruin lives.
I know. I've seen addiction up close and personal. Some fought addiction and lost. May they rest in peace. Others fought it and won.
In either case, that drugs were illegal was the least of their problems. In neither case was it ever the solution. DM
- The eco-Pope: Critiquing a priestly critique of my critique
- The eco-Pope: When the infallible fails
- What they don’t want you to know about what they don’t want you to know
- Fracking: ‘You lose. Check and Mate.’
- Tesla’s battery is the future. The distant future.
- Don’t worry, bee happy
- Climate changers want to rob central banks
- The unquestioned recycling mantra
- How much does smartphone convenience really cost you?
- Governments tell you deflation is bad. Is it?
- Cowardly farmers’ chickens come home to roost
- Rhino horn: The proposal that could save the species
- Twelve years on: I was wrong about the Iraq War
- When environmentalism becomes a crime against humanity
- In a water crisis… Let them drink beer?
- Everyone is autistic nowadays
- The WWF weighs in on fracking economics
- Are the oceans really dying?
- Gunning for Eskom? Fracking could solve your problem
- The broken blue line closes ranks
- Fear-mongering – unhelpful in the fight against cancer
- Uber permits as protectionist central planning
- Design your own genetically modified freak show
- 13 ways the media tries to scare you
- Star Trek 50 years on: A vision of hegemony
- The toothless climate change agenda
- Apartheid’s censors ride again
- Only Big Tobacco and Big Pharma want e-cig regulation
- Since when do we believe the tobacco industry?
- The blockchain: How Atlas will shrug
- The mafia bosses and the gambling cartel
- The planet is getting greener
- The tinfoil hat loonies were right all along
- ‘The cheque is in the mail’
- WWF report proves the sustainability of growth
- WWF alarmism raises even green eyebrows
- Chernodeal: Shopping for discount nukes
- Star Trek, 50 years on: A study in sexism
- Let me mansplain statistics to you
- Free the hippies! Don’t ban their drugs!
- Which principle: precaution or progress?
- How to kill a baby, naturally!
- Miserere mei, the Ebocalypse is here!
- Advanced technology or magic?
- Tourism: Still doing okay? Let’s fix that!
- Green-left messiah desperately seeking spin-doctor
- The gun genie and its bottle
- On energy, environment, and regulatory independence
- South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry
- Grab shale gas opportunity, but avoid opportunism
- It’s about who you don’t vote for
- Free markets as a moderate position
- Voting: there’s still time to change your mind
- Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green
- How Mmusi Maimane swindled a vote out of me
- The case to elect Malema to Parliament
- The intellectual gnome, Chomsky
- If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?
- Do Malema's followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?
- Look ma, I'm defending Shell's record in Nigeria!
- Any weather is evidence for global warming
- U-turn prof finds his fracking fears are avoidable
- Ramphele et al: The world according to angry feminists
- On HIV/Aids and scary-big numbers
- Cherry-picking ‘grey literature’ on rhino horn
- 350,000 reasons to kill a black rhino
- Eight myths about libertarians
- New Year’s resolutions for other people
- All I want for Christmas is a fire pool
- In defence of Donald Trump
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey