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Not an Argument for Legalization

It is surprising and unfortunate that Jonathan Caulkins chose to read our essay as an argument for “legalization,” as it neither included any calls for major changes in current drug control policies nor did it lay out an idealized drug policy for the future. The suggestion we are making, instead, is for providing accurate, pragmatic information to the public about psychoactives (regardless of their legal status) in order to help everyone make decisions about these substances as responsibly as possible.

The three respondents to our article declined to address its central theses, preferring to spin off onto arguing the “by-now dull legalization debate.” Perhaps we should have subtitled our article

“Not An Argument For Legalization.” The inability to discuss topics even related to the War on Drugs without being driven into a position for or against “legalization” is symptomatic of the wider problems around psychoactive drugs and drug policy in our culture. The discussion that has followed was articulate, highly informed, and interesting, but had little to do with the topic of our essay.

Despite Caulkins’ dramatic claim that we assert that “abstinence is inconsistent with being modern,” we do not argue that everyone must consume illegal drugs, nor do we suggest that absolutely everyone uses psychoactives. We are simply pointing out an obvious but poorly understood reality: Every adult is confronted with choices about psychoactives, since they are widely present in foods, drinks, and medications. A vast majority of the population does ingest psychoactive drugs with varying degrees of education or awareness. We appreciate Caulkins taking up the cause of the 0.5-2% of the population who are lifetime abstainers,[1] since our essay could apparently be read as ignoring that population. Thanks to Jacob Sullum for taking on Caulkins’s mischaracterization.

Caulkins seems resistant to looking at these substances as a broad category spanning legal to illegal, safer to more dangerous, plants to pharmaceuticals. We believe that it’s necessary to draw appropriate parallels between legal and illegal psychoactives (for instance, talking about the similarities in the effects and uses of the stimulants caffeine and amphetamine) as well as appropriate distinctions between specific drugs. More resolution in education will help our society have a healthier dialog about the inherently complex process of choosing whether or not to use drugs that directly affect the decisionmaking process itself.

The increasing exposure to psychoactive drugs (and non-drug technologies, a critical subject not explored in our essay) heightens the need for high-quality education. Society should, we argue, teach its citizens to be aware the effects of the pharmaceuticals they ingest, to be aware that their morning coffee or evening glass of wine affects their attention and judgment, to know that trying MDMA (ecstasy) or antidepressants can affect their worldview, to consider that regular use of methamphetamine or Xanax (alprazolam) can influence the decisions that they make. People should be taught the skills and techniques necessary to stop and think through the realistic possible outcomes of specific types of psychoactive use before they are faced with making real life decisions about their own use, keeping in mind, of course, that this definition of use encompasses abstinence on one end of a continuum.

Caulkins says, “… nothing about American alcohol policy precludes application of [our Fundamentals of Responsible Psychoactive Use].” He seemingly missed the point in our article where we note that California legislates that (with regard to underage use) “No aspect of the program may include a message on ‘responsible use’ [of alcohol].” Caulkins then comments that if the “Fundamentals” worked with alcohol, he would take them more seriously with respect to all psychoactives — specifically pointing out methamphetamine. Yet methamphetamine is a prescription drug, and presumably many people who use it legally do so without problems. On a societal level, there has been a change — with regard to alcohol — where one of the Fundamentals (“Anticipate reasonably foreseeable risks to oneself and others and employ safeguards to minimize those risks”) is much more widely accepted and promoted these days than in the past. Many drinkers designate a sober driver or take cabs; surely these practices have reduced harm. Our list of Fundamentals is not presented as a perfected solution, but is instead intended to illustrate the types of actions and considerations that can help improve people’s interactions with psychoactives.

Though Caulkins says that he “would never deny” people the chance to try following our Fundamentals of Responsible Psychoactive Use, he appears to dismiss both the potential benefits of the Fundamentals as well as even the possibility of “Responsible Use” of illicit psychoactive drugs. We strongly disagree with the implications of his final paragraph, which implies that responsible use of an illegal substance is impossible, because the very act of breaking the law is fundamentally irresponsible. One arguably irresponsible act does not have to result in all following choices being made irresponsibly and unhealthily as well. Those who drink alcohol underage or use heroin in their home have broken the law, but we would still choose to persuade such people not to get in a car and drive. Whether it’s caffeine while working, daily crack cocaine use, or the once-in-a-lifetime experiment with LSD, we would like to see everyone be trained to evaluate their behavior against a set of responsible use guidelines. We don’t argue that our proposed guidelines are the be-all and end-all for this list, but they’re a starting point.

Regardless of whether our society implements prohibition, legalization, or any control scheme in between, there will be people choosing to use strong psychoactives. Those who consume any psychoactive drug, legally or not, deserve access to pragmatic information, helpful use strategies, and guidelines that will reduce the harms and increase the benefits associated with use.

In reacting to the comments made by Caulkins, both Sullum and Kleiman got pulled into a debate over prohibition. By characterizing us and Sullum as being focused on cannabis and hallucinogens and Caulkins as being focused on cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, Kleiman suggests that we are simply talking past each other. However the miscommunication is not that we are focused on different substances. Does Kleiman think that government and educational institutions should intentionally misrepresent some drugs to promote prevention? If methamphetamine is the scourge of the 21st century, is it reasonable to exaggerate its harms and not mention that it is considered medically safe to prescribe to children?

For the purposes of our primary thesis about the importance of accurate information and our hypothesis that more robust education about psychoactives can lead to more responsibility over time, drug control policies are moot. We would argue the same points about cocaine, cannabis, or alcohol whether they were legally available or if they were the most strictly prohibited drugs. To restate this as clearly as possible: We are not arguing for “legalization;” we are arguing for better information and education.

Perhaps our ideas are so uncontroversial that they aren’t any fun to argue!


[1] We are unaware of any surveys that have attempted to assess individuals’ lifetime psychoactive use. Estimates of lifetime use of behaviorally active levels of caffeine vary between 96% and 99%. Lifetime use of alcohol among adults is estimated around 90%. Combining caffeine use statistics with ever-used alcohol, ever-used tobacco, and ever-used psychoactive medications, the portion of the population that are lifetime abstainers is likely between 0.2% and 2%.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Towards a Culture of Responsible Psychoactive Drug Use by Earth and Fire Erowid

    In their lead essay, Earth and Fire Erowid stress the importance of developing responsible, fully informed relationships toward psychoactive drugs. Although drug prohibition has persisted for decades, the overwhelming majority of adults have tried at least one illegal drug, and these substances aren’t going away any time soon. Sadly, prohibition itself has stunted our knowledge of these substances, and, as in so many things, ignorance is both dangerous and irresponsible. Provocatively, they criticize even the word “drugs” as a tag for illegal psychoactives: Lumping them all together, they write, betrays a lack of understanding of their vastly different effects, risk profiles and – yes – benefits.

Response Essays

  • Is Responsible Drug Use Possible? by Jonathan Caulkins

    Jonathan Caulkins argues that the responsible use of psychoactive drugs is an overstretched concept, if by “psychoactive drugs” we mean everything from caffeine to heroin. In many cases, he argues, temperance may be the only responsible “use” of a given substance.

    Further, state prohibitions on pleasurable but risky acts are hardly confined to this area of law; their violation is not a genuine form of civil disobedience as long as pleasure itself is the real goal of the act. And the risks remain regardless. Duly enacted laws in a democracy deserve far more respect than this, and following the law is a part of the responsibility of all citizens.

  • True Temperance by Jacob Sullum

    Jacob Sullum notes that temperance and abstinence have been wrongly conflated, and that the Aristotelian view of temperance encompassed all of the moderate, reasoned, and honorable pleasures of life. He reiterates that virtually everyone uses psychoactive drugs of one kind or another, and that the overwhelming majority of use is responsible. He challenges the notion that the state has any interest in the private actions of individuals that do not harm anyone else, and he terms the impulse to protect people from themselves “unethical” and “an open-ended rationale for government intervention that logically leads to totalitarianism.”

  • Drug Policy in Principle, and in Practice by Mark Kleiman

    Mark Kleiman takes up a theme already addressed by the other participants, namely the distinctions to be found within the catchall category “illegal drugs.” He notes that the risk profiles, motivations for use, and public health considerations of these substances are so far removed from one another that it may make no sense to continue to treat them as similar in public policy. Given the choice between full legalization and the status quo, he would choose the status quo, but, he argues, these alternatives should not be the only ones we consider.

The Conversation