Drugs and Alcohol (Part 3)

This post was edited and updated on June 29 2014, to include additional thoughts.

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A Rational Policy on Drugs and Alcohol

In my last post I argued against government prohibitions against drugs and alcohol.  My position is that substances such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, etc., should be legal in the same way that alcohol and tobacco are today.  I believe, however, that the distribution and marketing of these substances should be brought under direct government control.  All of the commonly abused addictive substances are dangerous, and they have taken – and continue to take – an enormous toll on society.  This cost includes lives, health, lost opportunities, money and general suffering and anguish.  But it’s difficult to put old heads on young shoulders, and it seems that each generation – indeed each individual – has to learn these lessons anew.  I don’t believe we can ever eradicate substance abuse entirely.

What seems especially wrong to me, however, is that we allow individuals and groups to prosper and thrive by actively marketing these products – an endeavor in which they have been extraordinarily successful. So we have various government agencies trying to reduce the incidence of alcohol and nicotine abuse while huge corporations are working towards the opposite end.  I realize, of course, that most of the major alcohol producers say that they abhor alcohol abuse, and that they only encourage “responsible” drinking.  These kinds of statements, however, always remind me of Hitler insisting that he had no expansionist agenda.  The fact is that alcohol and tobacco manufacturers spend millions (billions?) of dollars promoting their products and linking their products with sexiness and success in the minds of potential consumers.  To my way of thinking, this is simply wrong.

Here’s the system I would like to see in place.  The manufacturers of these substances could continue to operate, but could sell their products only to the government.  The government (federal, state, or county) would wholesale the products and would also have a retail outlet in each county.  In heavily populated areas, there could be more than one per county.  These outlets would be similar to the state-run stores in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, except that they wouldn’t just sell liquor.  They would sell all alcohol and tobacco products as well as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc…  All the addictive drugs would be available for adults to purchase through the government outlet, but nowhere else.  Customers would be required to show an ID, and each purchase would be registered in a database.  Customers whose consumption seemed excessive would be required to talk briefly to a counselor.  The counselor would encourage them to think about their consumption of addictive substances – but if they wanted to pursue the purchase, they would not be prevented from doing so.  People who came to the store in a state of intoxication would be taken involuntarily to a detox center where they would be detained until it was safe to let them go; i.e. that it was medically safe to discharge them.

All profits generated from the sale of addictive substances would be used to fuel preventive efforts and to support the detox centers.  Prices of products would be set as high as practicable, but not so high as to encourage bootlegging and black markets.

Of course there are many who will decry the notion of government interference in the free market.  But under the free market system, we have 450,000 tobacco-related deaths, and 85,000 alcohol-related deaths, and 17,000 illegal drug-related deaths each year in the United States.

Others will say that the government couldn’t run such an operation successfully.  But the stores in Pennsylvania have operated successfully since 1933.  Anyway, there it is:  my humble suggestion for a more rational way for our society to deal with these dangerous substances, which we, as a species, seem to find so attractive.

Next Post:  More exciting stuff.

  • Martin

    I really enjoyed the explanation you laid out about how to control and monitor the use of drugs. While I would be in agreement with the the legalization and governmental control of drugs, I do not agree that every single drug should be legalized such as heroin and methamphetamine. Meth in particular has been shown to create a feeling that has been described as better than an organism. Basically, meth creates a feeling so good that we can never hope to reproduce on our own. Not even that, but methamphetmine is not found naturally in the environment and it is through chemical alterations that it is created. For what benefit could that really have on an individual to be allowed to go into a store and buy it? Though I would agree to legalizing marijuana, hallucinogens, cocaine, and opium, do you not think that there are still some preventive boundaries to the use of drugs that should be enforced by our government? By legalizing a larger variety of safer drugs, then a finer distinction can be made to the drugs that are severely dangerous. I remember in DARE when they would explain drugs it seemed to me that marijuana, LSD, and crack were all on the same level. By legalizing many drugs but keeping a distinction on a few do you not think that would be informative enough to then maybe even seeing the abuse of such dangerous drugs diminish entirely? Because how can we finally get people to get off those drugs if they are readily available in stores?

  • Martin: thanks for your comment. Your letter goes to the heart of the issue: to what extent is it the legitimate role of government to protect people from themselves? In my post I took an extreme position on this. You would move the boundary in somewhat. And, of course, this kind of debate is the essence of a democratic system.

    You present two arguments for banning methamphetamines. Firstly, it is not found naturally in the environment. Secondly, it produces “a feeling so good that we can never hope to reproduce on our own.” And these are compelling points. But distilled alcohol doesn’t occur naturally in the environment. Nor, for that matter, does instant coffee. Man has always manipulated raw materials to suit his purpose. Our ancestors learned how to smelt iron from rocks, how to cook food, how to carve wood to make furniture, and how to distill alcohol. And the genie can never be put back in the bottle. Even if all the meth labs in the world were destroyed, someone would remember the manufacturing procedure and – sooner or later – would make some. And the whole futile “war on drugs” starts over again.

    Your suggestion essentially is: to legalize most addictive products but to continue to ban those items that you consider most dangerous. But that’s what we’ve got today! All you are doing is moving the boundary line. I agree with the direction you’re moving it – but I would move it all the way. Otherwise you have to retain all the futile and destructive aspects of the War on Drugs.

    Besides, I’m not sure I would agree that heroin and methamphetamines are the most dangerous. Nicotine – at 450,000 deaths per year in the US alone – is in my view more dangerous. It is sometimes said that nicotine harms only those who use it, whereas the so-called hard drugs – like heroin and methamphetamines – have wider consequences, e.g.: robberies and other crimes, car wrecks, murders, etc… But, in fact, most of the negative consequences of these latter products arise from the fact that they are illegal. If they were legalized – with the kind of controls outlined in my post – these problems simply wouldn’t be there. And besides, the second-hand smoking danger for children raised in smoking homes almost certainly outstrips the harm done by heroin and methamphetamines combined.

    I worked in the chemical dependency field for a number of years, and large numbers of addicted individuals have told me that some pharmaceutical products such as Valium and Xanax are every bit as addictive as heroin and methamphetamines. This, of course, is a subjective and individual matter: some people prefer one, others prefer another. But you don’t hear of people mugging pedestrians and robbing convenience stores in order to support a Valium habit. They just find another obliging physician. Please don’t take this as my condoning the pharmaceutical drug trade. I think the pharmaceutical drug trade is essentially the same as the street drug trade. But the difference – that it’s legal – is the critical point. Anybody can get these products. Just go to your physician and tell him you’re beside yourself with woes – that you can’t sleep – etc., etc., and there’s a good chance you’ll get a prescription. If not, try another physician. And pretty soon you’ll be hooked. But – and for me this is the central issue – most people don’t pursue this path, even though the products are so alluring. Most of us prefer to tackle and solve life’s problems and get our jollies from age-old sources like sunrises, waving fields of corn, family get-togethers, and good movies.

    Your final question: “…how can we finally get people to get off these drugs if they are readily available in stores?” is particularly compelling. And I guess my answer would be: we can’t. We can’t get people to stop using drugs. Even in prison! I think the best we can do is to eliminate the profit motive and devote a great deal of resources to teaching the dangers of these products and the detoxing and re-education of people who become addicted.

    In some regards, our respective positions do overlap. We both agree that these are very dangerous substances. We agree that there should be some measure of control on availability. Where we differ is on where to draw the line. But if you draw a line at all – then it’s back to over-crowded prisons, gang wars, destruction of the inner cities, etc.. All the same evils that occurred in the ‘20’s under prohibition and are with us today in the War on Drugs will continue. In the final analysis, of course, you may be correct. It may be that legalizing these products will lead to increased use. But I still feel that people have the right to choose what they ingest – even if it’s harmful.

    Anyway, thanks for your very insightful and thought-provoking comment. Feel free to come back. In my view, it is discussion and dialogue that will move this whole business in a positive direction.

  • I must disagree whole heartedly with the legalization of drug use. I understand that you don’t want to see groups of individuals profiting from the sale of these substances. However, I think it is short sightedness to think that by offering the legal use that problems would not increase. There are many law abiding citizens who would not think of purchasing illegal drugs. However, if legalized I am afraid there would be many curious individuals who would try once and then be hooked for life.

    I don’t have the answers, but I can tell you this. I visited Amsterdam back in 1994. This was one tourist stop of many. I remember walking through the city which is quite beautiful and seeing drug addicts laid out down the side streets outside legal stores. Believe me it’s pretty sad. Don’t think that wouldn’t happen here.

  • Sean,

    Thanks for your comment. The essential point you make is that if drugs were legalized it would increase use. And of course you may be correct. My feeling is that any increase would be minimal, and I may be correct. But neither of us has much data to support our position.

    The U.S. alcohol prohibition experiment in the ‘20s would tend to support my view, in that the nation did not degenerate into rampant alcoholism when prohibition was ended. Also remember that substances such as opium and cocaine were legal in the U.S. until 1905 and 1914 respectively, and there is no indication that use of these products was rampant.

    But as I said in the original piece, my primary arguments are:

    1. Government has no right to tell people what they may or may not ingest.

    2. Government attempts to prevent drug consumption are costly in terms of money and incarceration of people.

    3. Government attempts to prevent drug consumption have failed miserably and will continue to fail.

    4. Government attempts to prevent drug consumption have caused an unprecedented level of alienation between young people and the legal authorities.

    5. Government attempts to prevent drug consumption have led to increased violence in our streets and on the Mexico-U.S. border.

    My position is: legalize everything but with some socially responsible monitoring and with programs to help people detox and remain abstinent. These programs would be financed from sales of the product, which seems like win-win to me.

    The only way we can know for sure which of us is right is to try it. I would like to see one or two states start pilot programs. We would know within a couple of years which way it was going.

    Incidentally, the sad and destitute addict sleeping in doorways can be found everywhere. Under my system there would be funds to pick these people up – in a humane and caring way – and take them to a detoxification unit – at no cost to the tax payer!

    Once again, thanks for your comment. I respect your position. Please feel free to come back.

  • Bob Miller

    Phil,

    I think you make a good point. Why should drugs and alcohol be treated differently from Tobacco? I just can’t seem to understand how these two things are different, for they are equally harmful. Moreover, it must be said that by bringing distribution under control of the government (something that can only happen once these commodities are fully legalized), we are likely to see more controlled use of these drugs.
    -Bob from Awnings Gauteng

  • Bob,

    Thanks for your comment. I think you are correct about seeing more controlled use. We would also empty our jails and prisons 50% and decriminalize our streets!

  • Cindy

    Well you couldn’t blame it getting the upper-hand since at
    some countries they make such use of it ‘legal’. I terribly feel sorry to all
    those families whose life have been shattered by it.

    Cindy Ortez

  • Phil_Hickey

    Cindy,

    Thanks for coming in. I agree. There’s a great deal of tragedy here.

  • all too easy

    Got to love it. Phil, you consume alcohol. Have you driven under the influence ever? Let us notify the police of each occasion, shall we? Or, turn yourself in. How about that? Driving UTI is a major factor in the death by automobile carnage in the world. How many times did you put at risk innocent children while you drove UTI?

  • cledwyn “against nature”

    The War on Drugs, as Mencken understood, could only happen in a democracy.

    I’m sick of these Puritanical predators, poncing about in purloined plumage, persecuting others under cover of righteousness. In democratic societies, stopping other people from having a good time has become something of a national pastime.

    Many people ingest illegal substances simply to escape the nightmare that is their existence, yet such is man’s native solipsism, he is incapable of understanding the insufferable pain that leads men to seek solace in their daily drug dosage.

    To some people, the future spreads out like an infinite expanse, suffused with the gold of the sun’s rays, fertile with the promise of sublunary beatitude, with the promise of fulfilled desires (promises life never makes good on, but that’s for another discussion).

    To the average person who seeks pharmacological oblivion, the future is just a different symptom of the same disease, of which the past and the present are the other symptoms.

    Such people turn to drugs because they help with the pain of living. That so many people take them for this indisputable reason is a pretty poor compliment to our parents, who tell us life is a gift.

    Taking psycho-active drugs is a mode of transcendence, offering us respite from the burden of being ourselves, from the torments of Tantalus, from contemplating a future that bears the aspect of a barren landscape, a big graveyard in which all our hopes, ambitions and dreams lay entombed.

    Why bother to invest in the future when you have no future and when life’s value in the present is so worthless? Some people will dismiss this kind of talk as fatalistic and defeatist, but the facts are in life the cards are stacked against some people; all sorts of insuperable barriers interpose themselves between the individual and his goals; all sorts of structural obstacles block men’s paths; circumstances conspire against us, and so do people; society furthers the interests of some at the expense of others etc.

    The denial of drugs to people who need them is the last word in depravity, or it would be if it wasn’t for the existence of laws endeavoring to deprive men of that other escape-hatch, suicide.

    If society wants to understand this desire for pharmacological oblivion, the least it could do is have an honest reckoning with itself, with its ongoing love-affair with injustice and prejudice, with its values that, in laying such stress on the self, on material achievements and social status, tutors those who cannot be “successful” (people who are successful in such narrow terms are usually abject failures as human beings) to loathe themselves, to live perpetually a prey to the kinds of emotional pain psychiatrists regularly deal with, and deal with badly.

    Alas, men always think that they know what is best for those whom they oppress. Yes, all drugs can cause serious long-term health and other problems, but as I say, why should people care about a future that promises only more of the same disease? When you’ve got terminal cancer, you don’t worry about becoming addicted to morphine. People suffering from the figurative disease of life likewise aren’t going to concern themselves with any such health complications arising from their palliative drug habits.

    Maybe if we penetrated the fog of false consciousness that obscures our vision of just how damned oppressive life is, then we could revise our drug policies, but then you’d still have to contend with the Puritanical envy that drives this, the stupidest of all wars, War on Drugs.

  • cledwyn “against nature”

    About the future being a symptom of the same disease, that was a paraphrase of E.M. Cioran, I meant to put.

  • cledwyn “against nature”

    Regarding my last post, one or two proleptic remarks may be called for here.

    When I describe the Puritanical mania at the heart of the war on drugs as depraved, I am not, as some might think, just venting hatred, although such remarks are indubitably shot through with no small measure of hatred for all those who think it is any of their goddamned business what I do with my body.

    Some people deny the validity of the term “evil” and its companion terms, as can be seen in a recent article on MIA, as if to apply them to other people is to merely give shape to our own hatred, even though such terms have served some of the greatest minds in human history.

    Most of the evil in this regards is born both of a want of consideration and a stubborn refusal on the part of human beings to sound the sinister depths of their own humanity, notwithstanding the Pelagian pretensions of optimists who, in a secular variant of the theological doctrine of Angelism, would have us believe that goodness issues spontaneously from the human heart, therefore doing away with the need for self-vigilance, a belief that only serves to ensure evil’s dominion over men’s minds, because you don’t remedy it by denying its existence, as most people not only do, but also congratulate themselves on doing as if it conferred moral distinction.

    I don’t believe, as do some, that there is much in the way of good intentions gone wrong here, but then again, I don’t get my views about human nature from episodes of the Gilmore Girls, or from self-help manuals.

    In the way of an addendum to my earlier comment, what I would say to those people, such as certain commenters under this article, held captive it would seem by their own fanaticism and egotism, who would no doubt, in theory, acknowledge their own fallibility, but who in action feel no need to take no precautions against this; what I would say to those people who are determined to deprive other people of drugs is to start tending (figuratively speaking of course) to the cultivation of your own garden, and stop sticking your nose into other people’s.

    A man has the right to live and learn by his own mistakes. It is much better that men be left to suffer the consequences of their own actions than the consequences of the actions of others who in their fanatical faith in their own infallibility sacrifice others at the altar of their own certitudes. This applies as much to drug prohibitionists as it does to proponents and practitioners of forced psychiatry.

    The history of the desire to help others, mostly a channel into which men divert the depraved currents of their nature by which means they are allowed surreptitious passage free from awareness, supports this view. Better a man destroy himself than be destroyed by others.

  • all too easy

    When you or those who believe the trash you write, launch a 3,500 pound gas filled bomb down a public road, and you are under the influence of alcohol or another intoxicating drug, it is my business too, you little twerp, and you should go to prison for such an offense for a minimum, mandatory 12 years.

  • all too easy

    “I worked in the chemical dependency field for a number of years, and large numbers of addicted individuals have told me that some pharmaceutical products such as Valium and Xanax are every bit as addictive as heroin and methamphetamines. This, of course, is a subjective and individual matter: some people prefer one, others prefer another. But you don’t hear of people mugging pedestrians and robbing convenience stores in order to support a Valium habit. They just find another obliging physician.” Phil

    Not true

    USA TODAY June 28 2013

    “OxyContin a gateway to heroin for upper-income addicts” Headline USA TODAY

    “Heroin in Charlotte has become so easy to get that dealers deliver to the suburbs and run specials to attract their young, professional, upper-income customers.

    These lawyers, nurses, cops and ministers are showing up in the detox ward at Carolinas Medical Center, desperate to kick an opiate addiction that often starts with powerful prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.

    The center analyzed the patients’ ZIP codes to find out where heroin had taken root, says Robert Martin, director of substance abuse services at the medical center.

    “Our heroin patients,” he said, “come from the five best neighborhoods.”

    What Martin and others like him are witnessing is a growing and more dangerous wave of drug addiction sweeping the country, ensnaring a new population — several hundred thousand Americans — in the heroin trap and importing crime to America’s suburbs. Feeding the frenzy: Prescription painkiller addicts are finding their drug of choice in short supply, so heroin becomes their drug of last resort.

    As addicts move from legitimate prescriptions to the black market of pure, precisely measured narcotic pain pills to the dirty world of dealers, needles and kitchen table chemists, health officials and police are noting sharp increases in overdoses, crime and other public health problems.”

    USA TODAY June 28 2013

  • doppelganger

    You are a gas-filled bomb, honey – and a stinky one at that.

  • doppelganger

    Let’s not forget the addicts like you, who need only run to an obliging mommy for another hit of ADHD amphetamines.