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24 April 2014 13:30 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The drug war: dopey but dangerous

  • Ivo Vegter
In a recent column, I made a snide reference to anarchists with dirty “legalise pot” shirts who are, naturally, attracted to libertarian politics. I ought not to have violated the principles of freedom so flippantly.

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

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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