Thursday, April 13, 2017

Illegal Drugs

The Trump administration has renewed the effort to crack down on illegal drugs, mainly by stemming its flow into the country from Mexico and elsewhere.

Q: Do I support this initiative?
A: No!

Many "War on X" programs have been launched by the federal government in the last half-century, where X is something other than a political regime. There is, for example, the war on alcohol (in the 20's), the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cigarettes, the war on no-seat-belts, the war on lead, the war on asbestos, the war on racial and gender inequality, and the list goes on.

Upon some reflection, it seems that none of these wars have been won, or it has not achieved its ultimate objective. In the case of poverty, for example, there are still many impoverished people around and the resultant suffering continues. In the case of lead poisoning, we did indeed eliminate that heavy metal as an environmental contaminant that caused mental impairment in children, but we now have a very high incidence of ADHD and other learning and behavioral problems, seemingly attributable to some other culprit as yet to be identified and tackled, and so the war is still strategically lost even while the battle may have been won.

So where are we going wrong here?

The problem here is that we are too obsessed with readily identifiable conducive factors to societal ills, to the exclusion of more subtle, less distinct and less data-driven factors. This narrow-mindedness in our approach to identifying and solving social problems is, in my opinion, very flawed and baneful. It's not just that we're failing to see the big picture and acting optimally, but by zeroing in on relatively trivial culprits, we are making a conscious choice to absolve other culprits, thus committing a grave injustice.

Take seatbelts, for example. The success of the seatbelt campaign has been shown to cause many wearers to drive less carefully due to a sense of being protected, thus undoing whatever benefit the seatbelt was hoped to bestow upon the average driver. When it's all said and done, there is no evidence that seat belts in our current technological and social conditions save any measurable number of lives. (The studies that had been conducted to prove the efficacy of seatbelts are decades old and were possibly faulty even at the time.) And yet, the single-minded cult of seatbelt-wearing continues. We would have been much better off having a more rounded and intuitive take on safe driving, emphasizing intuitively bad practices as things to avoid, such as driving while drug-impaired, driving while tired, driving while multi-tasking, driving too slow relative to everyone else, driving slow on the passing lane, law enforcement causing unnecessary distractions to rubbernecking drivers at the site of accidents, and the list goes on.

Now back to the drug problem. A Canadian physician (whose name didn't register in me) tonight appeared on the Fox News channel to proffer his theory that it isn't the addictive property of drugs that is the problem, but the underlying trauma for which it is taken. He argues that many heroin users, even while supposedly addicted, still function productively in society. Cracking down on the drug doesn't work because people want it and demand it. So the question we should ask is why are people so traumatized that they seek to use as a mental anguish palliative what was originally intended as a physical pain palliative. The problem isn't that there are bad hombres supplying the illicit substance in their greed for lucre, but that there are people on the demand side who are so stressed that they want to use the drug as a soothe, as opposed to tackling the root of the stressor or coping with it through psychological therapy.

Things should not be banned because they could be abused. In my libertarian ideal I am loathe to go that route unless and until I am convinced the abuse is so widespread and inevitable and the substance so singularly malignant that we have no other choice. This is a very high bar to reach. Drugs, especially marijuana, do not reach this standard, not by a long shot. The federal government should therefore not be involved in banning it. If states want to make it legal, that's fine. If they want to make it illegal that's fine. As to cross-border trade, so long as the drug is destined to a state where it is legal, and the import tariff (which should most certainly be imposed!) is paid, the feds should have no qualms about it. It's not their job to legislate and enforce nationwide morality.

On the local level, jurisdictions should focus on rehabilitating addicts rather than criminalizing them for drug use (something Bernie Sanders talked about in his 2016 presidential campaign). As the TV physician said, we need to find the root of the problem, perhaps unemployment, despair, social anomie, etc. and deal with that instead.

Having said that, if a local municipality seeks to ban drug use within its jurisdiction, as one tool among many in its toolbox for constructing a moral order, it is acceptable to me. Such a law, however, would focus on use, not on commerce as is currently the case, and it would make it a misdemeanor, ticketable offense akin to disorderly conduct, littering, jaywalking and the like, not a felony imprisonable offense. Moreover, such a law would be narrow enough to target only the most troublesome behavior and demographic. For example, the law would give a pass to drug users over a certain age, or using the drug at certain designated times (e.g. holidays, weekends, spring break).