by Sean Gabb
Drugs screw you up, it’s said. Take them, and you’ll become an addict. You’ll get spots. You’ll get AIDS. You’ll die in Cardboard City. You’ll be ‘undermining the stability of our country’ (M. Thatcher). Drugs are EVIL. They are rightly banned.
A shame so many believe this - believe so firmly that doubt earns any reaction from laughter to violence. It is for the most part a pack of lies. Drugs aren’t anything like the great scourge that people imagine them. There’s certainly not the slightest justification for making laws against dealing in or using them.
Look at the more popular drugs. 50 years of well-funded research still haven’t proved cannabis, the market leader, more dangerous in the long run than equal amounts of tobacco. Since no one could smoke as much cannabis ~s tobacco without falling asleep, it probably carries less risk of lung cancer. It might also be good for delaying glaucoma blindness. It isn’t physically addictive. Nor, says Martindale’s Pharmacopoeia, is cocaine. Nor is LSD. Heroin, developed as a patent cough medicines remains a wonderful painkiller. Terminal cancer can be hell without it. Like the other opiates, it is addictive over time. But only a minority become addicts; and only a minority of addicts 1986, 235 deaths resulted from use of all illegal drugs. At the same time, they gave a lot of people ~ lot of pleasure. At the same time, perhaps 100,000 died from smoking tobacco, and another 6,500 from drinking alcohol.
While not in itself a valid argument, this does clear the way in some minds to considering one. Drug control is a violation of rights.
Freedom is doing with ourselves as we please, not what the powerful - think is good for us. What pleases us only we can know. It may be wealth, or devotion to the poor, or chancing the firing squad in some lost cause. There’s no accounting for taste. Some think there is~ and, watching choices made which don’t appeal to them, talk variously of ‘psychopathic personality disorders’ or ‘false consciousness’. But all this comes down to ~s an excuse for hijacking lives. If a person does something that others think odd, the proper question isn’t whether the act is ‘reasonable’, but whether the agent seems capable of knowing its likely effects. If note there are grounds for restraint. Where capacity can’t be presumed, the ultimate case for freedom - that it best promotes happiness - doesn’t apply. But where capacity is presumed, what someone does, no matter how destructive it may seem, isn’t another’s business. ‘I’ll die young’ said Lenny Bruce of heroin, ‘but it’s like kissing God’. His life. His preference.
Of course, third parties do matter. Freedom to destroy yourself is one thing. Taking others with you is something else. But it just isn’t so that free access to drugs is a public menace. Look at the drugs again. The cannaboids and opiates are relaxants. The number of violent crimes committed under their influence is so small that separate figures aren’t published. Cocaine, the psychedelic drugs and amphetamine do excite sometimes to violence. But numbers are again too small to notice.
Or look to the example of our own freer past. Until 1916, drug use here was uncontrolled. Never the vice of a small group, it was at times a national habit. Between 1827 and 1859 British opium consumption rose from 17,0001b to 61,0001b. Workmen mixed it in their beer. Gladstone took it in his coffee before speaking. Scott wrote ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’ under its influence. Cocaine was put in soft drinks. Cannabis and heroin were openly on sale. 19th century England wasn’t a nation enfeebled by drugs to anywhere near the point of collapse. People didn’t run amok. Most deaths were individual accidents and even these were negligible 104 in 1868, and thereafter to 1901 an annual average of 95. When drugs were an integral part of English culture, use was regulated by custom and personal choice. Temperance fanatics aside - and their first and main hate was alcohol - few saw any serious third party problem.
And even if one did exist now, it still wouldn’t follow that laws were the solution. For a solution to be worth adopting it must show some prospect of working: and it really is glaringly obvious that nearly everything bad about drugs is an effect of trying to ban them.
Catching a drug dealer isn’t easy. There’s no victim to complain or for clues to be left on. The Police have to catch him in the act. Entrapment - tempting then arresting - is still frowned on here. But it’s quite lawful to be stopped in the street and searched on suspicion of carrying drugs. Sudden swoops and house to house searches, though not lawful, are common. As for punishment, since 1986 the drug dealer has risked life in prison if caught - life, simply for trading with others! Under the same law, his assets on conviction are presumed the profits of crime, and can be confiscated unless proven otherwise. For him, the normal burden of proof in criminal law is reversed. In the name of the ‘War on Drugs’ all sense of proportion is going. Vital common law safeguards are being torn down.
Yet the ‘War’ is being lost. Indeed, it’s unwinnable. Drugs can be synthesised in a garden shed. Imports can’t be kept out. In 1984, 36 million people entered this country. A woman can bring in £20,000 worth of heroin packed in her vagina. If drugs are wanted, they’ll be supplied. The law simply determines how.
The ordinary crimes - like mugging, and housebreaking, with the odd bank raid - don’t on the whole pay much. They don’t generate the kind of profits that bring mafias into being. These need a wholly different class of crime - something like ordinary business~ but from which ordinary businessmen are excluded. Illegal drugs are exactly this. During 70 years, use had for various reasons gone largely out of fashion here. Then~ between 1979 and 1984, convictions for possession or supply rose by 163%~ and have since gone higher. One guess is that £3 billion was spent on them in 1986 alone. This is big money. It’s more than the Ethiopian GNP. It’s ten times the cost of the Falklands war. It’s enough to make crime pay on a very big scale. Drugs are supplied. And because drugs are supplied by criminals, they are both expensive and dirty.
Consider: A Bolivian farmer sells 500kg of coca leaves for US$2,000. Refined into 1kg of cocaine, it sells to a local wholesaler for $7,000. To a Canadian wholesaler it’s worth $18,000. The street dealers buy it for $100,000. Its final selling price is $800,000 - a 40,000% mark up! There are two elements in this. First, without high prices, drugs wouldn’t be worth bringing to market. Technical transport inefficient, bribes, rewards of special entrepreneur Al risk, all cost money. Second, there’s the usual effect of coercive monopoly. If another dealer comes on their territory, the Yardies don’t sigh and cut their prices. They blow his legs off and keep market share that way.
Therefore petty crime. Maybe some users become thieves because of the company they have to keep. But dole cheques aren’t much with heroin at £50 a days and not everyone’s equally suited for prostitution. In America~ perhaps 55% of robberies are to finance buying drugs.
Therefore users turning to glue and lighter fuel. These are often dangerous, and don’t seem to give much in the way of pleasure. But they’re cheap and available. Use varies with the price of the higher preference drugs.
Consider again; When I buy a can of lager, if I read on it “8% alcohol by volume” I know this means 8% - not anything between 0.5% and 30%. I know that caustic soda isn’t what makes it fizzy. If I want it in a glass, I’m not given one in which someone else has just vomited. Put this down to clean food laws, or to free competition. Neither applies to the illegal drug market. Therefore frequent overdosing. Therefore poisonous additives. Therefore, in 1986, an estimated 85% of Edinburgh heroin mainliners infected with AIDS got off dirty needles. It wasn’t heroin screwed up these lives, and anyone who really thinks otherwise is a fool.
Is this claiming the right to sell drugs to children? Presumed responsible beings, the answer is no. Read above. In any case, they are currently sold drugs. They’re a soft market because they don’t shop round or inform. Also, they make cheap and often legally immune couriers. When a New York law made this job risky to adults~ it was entirely taken over by children. The real danger to them is laws that stop drugs being swept off the streets, back into the retail pharmacies where they belong.
Libertarians are often called impractical fanatics. Defined as someone who tries following ideas wherever they lead, fanatics we are. Freedom includes the right to shoot dope. But impractical we aren’t. Drug control does everything but control drugs. This isn’t straining for paradox. It’s simply one more illustration of an old truth - that telling people their business usually produces in intended and unpleasant results.
The present Government made its name proclaiming this truth in economic matters. It’s about time it was applied generally.
Published by the University of York Freedom Society in 1986.
Dr. Sean Gabb is a writer, broadcaster, lecturer, and general publicist for the libertarian movement in England. He is the Director of the Libertarian Alliance. Dr. Gabb can be reached at email@example.com.