Questioning My Drug Libertarianism

Questioning My Drug Libertarianism

For as long as I can remember, I've thought all drugs should be legal. In a nutshell, I believe that people should be allowed to put themselves at risk if they want to.

There are limits. Like everyone, I'm glad when a police officer tackles someone before they can jump off a bridge. But absent a good reason to think that a specific individual will greatly harm himself if allowed his freedom, the government should butt out. And no, wanting to try a drug, even a hard drug, is not such a reason.

This opinion doesn't depend on any particular set of facts. Comfortingly, though, I also thought the negative consequences of legalization would be mild. I'm feeling less comfortable these days. 

I was never so naive as to think there would be no increase in drug use or abuse if drugs were legal. But I did think legalization would easily pass a practical cost-benefit test: reduce incarceration, if perhaps not as much as some might think; end an illegal market whose violence spills far beyond our borders; and expand personal freedom, all for the acceptable price of an extra overdose or other health problem here and there, plus maybe some extra property crimes by addicts stealing to feed their habit.

Drug addiction couldn't go up that much. The War on Drugs is an utter failure and drugs are widely and cheaply available anyway. Everyone knows that.

Well, reality is not lining up with this view of the world. In 1999, Americans had fatal drug overdoses at a rate of 6 per 100,000. In 2014, that number stood at 14.8 per 100,000 — a rise of 8.8 per 100,000. To put this in perspective, America's famously high homicide rate is about 5 per 100,000. And the overdose spike is apparently driven by a policy change much gentler than full legalization.

The general consensus seems to be that in recent decades, doctors started taking patients' pain more seriously, and thus began prescribing opioid painkillers more generously. Some patients became addicted; others got medications they didn't need and sold them. (It appears that most addicts are not getting their drugs directly from a doctor.) Efforts to clamp down on this problem may have had an effect on painkiller overdose deaths — there was a dip in 2012 and 2013 — but 2014 saw another record high. Many addicts are switching to heroin, another opioid with a staggering and growing death toll.

Now, extrapolating from this narrative, imagine if we completely legalized all drugs, not only removing the threat of incarceration but also dramatically driving down prices.

Perhaps this isn't as bad as it looks; after all, 14.8 per 100,000 can also be expressed as 0.0148 percent. Perhaps it's not fair to extrapolate; it's possible people would react differently to drugs that aren't prescribed, but instead are discouraged, by doctors. Perhaps legalization could be paired with better education. Perhaps drugs could be taxed and the proceeds used to fund treatment. Perhaps legalization would still be a net benefit, thanks to reduced incarceration and drug-gang violence, but by a slimmer margin than I'd originally thought and hoped.

Or perhaps there's a good reason these numbers made me so uncomfortable when I saw them.

I don't know; this is not an issue I write about frequently or have studied in much depth. But it sure looks like loosening control of a drug made all hell break loose, and that's not what I would have predicted, say, ten years ago.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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