Realistic Policy Proposals Versus Hypotheticals

A couple of points bear mentioning with respect to the exchange between Mark and Jacob.

First, increasing a tax, such as an alcohol tax, should not be thought of as happening in isolation. Unless the costs of administering the tax eat up all the revenue (not credible in this case since it is just increasing the rate of an existing tax), that increased revenue stream will either (1) fund a new government program, (2) reduce the deficit, or (3) allow reduction in another tax. The idea of increasing an alcohol tax and simultaneously reducing a tax on work (the income tax) so that the changes are revenue neutral might appeal to people who dislike raising the alcohol tax at least in part because they do not like increasing the tax burden generally.

Second, I’ll agree with Jacob that it can be useful to discuss changes that are not politically plausible at present, but I’d at least suggest discussants being clear whether they are trying to make practical suggestions for short- to medium-term changes vs. when they are discussing something more as a hypothetical. In that vein, I’d suggest not lumping together decriminalization of marijuana and across the board legalization of all drugs. Those two proposals have entirely different prospects. Indeed, quite a few U.S. states have already decriminalized marijuana, in varying ways. In this case, I think it is also important to make the distinction for substantive reasons. The stakes involved in decriminalizing marijuana vs. across the board legalization are entirely different, as is the degree of uncertainty surrounding the likely outcomes.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.