September 2008

To some degree, we all know what life is like under drug prohibition. It’s been the status quo for decades. But what would life be like without the war on drugs? This is much harder to imagine.

Those who support drug prohibition often do so with the premise, implicit or explicit, that life without prohibition would be marked by vastly more irresponsibility, addiction, accidents, health problems, and death. Those who favor ending drug prohibition are forced to argue, not only for an unfamiliar policy, but also against this parade of horribles. Yet are we not able to think about and manage these substances rationally and responsibly? If we are, then as a society, the more effective way to face psychoactive substances may simply be to allow each individual to decide for himself what role, if any, these substances will have.

For this month’s lead essay, we have invited Earth and Fire Erowid, the maintainers of the drug information site, to discuss how prohibition itself has shaped the way we think about drugs, and how the drug war has prevented us from forming responsible, well-informed views of psychoactive substances.

Prohibition, they argue, has created an oversimplified and caricatured view of psychoactive drugs: On the one side are legal drugs, which are presumed to be relatively safe; on the other are the illegals, and public understanding of their effects often reaches no further than rumors and “Just Say No.” This simplistic understanding has stunted any efforts toward building a culture of responsible use. Although it is virtually impossible to say that greater prohibition efforts have meant decreased drug use, these efforts certainly have produced less-informed drug use, and this has produced precisely the irresponsibility, addiction, accidents, and health problems that all of us worry about.

Commending on the Erowids’ essay will be Jonathan Caulkins, former co-director of the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center and Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Qatar Campus; Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason magazine and author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use; and Mark Kleiman, professor of policy studies at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research.

Print entire 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.

The Conversation

Related at Cato

» Book: After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century, edited by Timothy Lynch

» Book: Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, by Radley Balko

» Policy Forum: Should No-Knock Police Raids be Rare — or Routine?

» Book Forum: Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics with Matthew B. Robinson, Renee G. Scherlen, and Dr. David Murray