The issue of drugs is one where you can divide sensible people from the unhinged. Sensible people understand that humans will always look for ways to get intoxicated and some of those ways will be deadly. Some kill over a lifetime like alcohol or smoking. Others kill quickly like meth or heroin. There’s often a criminal element around these things, which makes them a social problem, in addition to a personal problem.

Sensible people also understand that while you can never eliminate these vices, you can’t embrace them either. A society full of potheads, drunks and smack heads is not going to last very long. The great challenge of human organization is to reduce the number of people that are a burden on society, without turning men into slaves. The “free rider problem” has been with us since the dawn of time and will be with us until the end of time.

The libertarian obsession with drugs is well known. Libertarians were put on earth to harangue sensible people about the evils of drug prohibition. It’s their calling card and the reason they remain a fringe movement. Their brand of personal liberty sounds good until people think about Walmart having a sale on heroin or meth. No one wants to live in a world where some guy is snorting coke at your kid’s ball game.

That, I think, is the reason for the obsession with drugs. A libertarian society sounds great, as long as the society is full of libertarians able to live as rugged individuals, making no claims on their neighbors. Drug addicts present an impossible problem for libertarians. As soon as you have a decent population of people that make bad choices, you get demands for collective action to address the bad choices.

There’s another problem for libertarians when it comes to drugs and that’s their assumption that people act out of self-interest. In the libertarian paradise where drugs are legal and welfare is voluntary, the belief is only a rare few will risk starvation in order to get high. Charitable welfare will provide the additional incentives for those that may choose getting high over food.

That’s the argument. The trouble is drug use makes clear that most people are not rational and they don’t always act out of self-interest. Things like meth would not exist if people were rational. Heck, weed would not exist as it is not a very pleasant form of intoxication compared to opiates or alcohol. Yet, marijuana is the most popular illicit drug in the West. Lots of people smoke pot because their peers do it or they have nothing better to do.

Then there are the drug dealers. If libertarians were right about people, we would have few drug dealers. In a town like Baltimore, the game gets you killed or sent away to prison for a long time. Yet, there are plenty of young men getting in the game. As soon as one dies, another takes up his spot on the corner. The money to be made is small, even by ghetto standards. Young men just like action and some young men just like the violence.

The bad choices drug takers make often lead to them not being able to fend for themselves. You can rely on charity to handle things like drug treatment, but you still need cops to get the junkies off the streets. You need cops to keep the junkies from robbing people to feed their habit. Like it or not, the drug addicted are a societal problem. Like public parks, they are a public obligation.

That does not mean the war on drugs is the answer. By every metric, prohibition has been a failure. The whole point of prohibition is to drive up the costs of making and selling the prohibited product. Make the cost high enough and the number willing to risk doing it shrinks to a manageable number. The price of the product reflects that reality and therefore prices limit the market. Prohibition is basically just cost shifting.

Yet, illicit drugs are cheaper and more potent than ever. There are new and improved drugs and the distribution channels are vastly more sophisticated than at the start of the drug war. Then you have the proliferation of prescription drugs that magically end up on the black market, often through physicians who make more writing scripts than seeing patients. The drug war is just a wildly expensive failure at this point.

I don’t know the answer to the problem. Maybe there is no answer. The number of heroin users in America is quite small according to the CDC. They are 0.3% of all drug takers. Roughly a quarter of Americans use illegal drugs so we’re talking about 300,000 people. That sounds like a lot but in a country of 300 million, it’s a nuisance, not an epidemic. It’s also easily manageable, if there’s a will to do something about it.

40 thoughts on “Drugs

  1. This isn’t for you, it’s for me. I’m a tired old man and I just want to be left alone, I’ve given up on trying to preach to people but I still gotta sleep with my conscience so I gotta say something. You claim libertarians don’t believe in trade-offs and think drug legalization is a magical solution to the myriad drug problems, yet you yourself admit you don’t know what the solution is and don’t see the trade-offs we’ve made with the War on Drugs. Read Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams and John Stossel – libertarians are all about trade-offs, they’re the ones insisting “solutions” are a chimera. The best you can do is trade one set of problems for anither and you gotta ask yourself if it’s worth it, if the cure is worse than the disease.

    No libertarian I know of thinks legalizing drugs is a solution to all our problems, but they do see that legalizing drugs addresses the issue of how damn much money and manpower and resources and civil liberties surrendering and perverse incentives and disrespect for the law we’ve wasted trying to prevent people from getting drugs. You claim if libertarians are correct we shouldn’t see drug dealers – how many smokers knock over convenience stores for the cigarettes, how many alcoholics knock over liquor stores for the booze, how many fat people knock over grocery stores for the Twinkies? You see drug dealers because drugs are illegal and there’s a lot of money to be made in the business – don’t be surprised when the criminals selling drugs act like criminals. Don’t be surprised when the cops see how futile the job is and start being corrupted by the job. Don’t be surprised when legislators start cynically passing laws they know will never work because it profits them by votes and power and graft.

    The first rule of rule-making, whether you’re a legislator or a cop or a parent, is: don’t make rules you will not or cannot enforce because it just creates contempt for the rules and for the rule-maker. Legalize drugs, you get more drug users – but you tax and regulate them like cigarettes and alcohol, you save a ton of money you would have spent going after the casual users (who are the majority of users) and you use that money for dealing with the hard-core criminally stupid drug users. You also save on the cops and the prisons and the justice system time and personnel wasted chasing the dragon and focus on more mundane issues. Is that a perfect solution? No, but is it better than what we have now or better than waiting for a fairy with a magic wand to show up and solve the problem? You tell me who’s willing to settle for trade-offs and who’s obdurately insisting on solutions.

  2. “A society full of potheads, drunks and smack heads is not going to last very long.”

    I know, right? Just look what useless, shiftless, drunkard layabouts Americans have become since the repeal of the 18th amendment.

    “The libertarian obsession with drugs is well known.”

    Said the man who is obsessed with others using drugs and the need for cops to do something about it.

    “Their brand of personal liberty sounds good until people think about Walmart having a sale on heroin or meth.”

    Can you imagine just how terrible the world would be if Walmart sold guns, alcohol, and junk food? I mean, it’s just crazy to that peaceful people would buy those things and live in peace, right? Owning a gun and getting drunk pretty much automatically makes people violent criminals, the same way that meth and heroine do, right?

    “No one wants to live in a world where some guy is snorting coke at your kid’s ball game.”

    And yet, we live in that world, right now.

    “The trouble is drug use makes clear that most people are not rational”

    Including the politician who claims he can solve your problem, if you just give him more power. As well as the fools who trip over themselves to give him that power.

    “Things like meth would not exist if people were rational.”

    Proof by assertion is very unconvincing.

    “If libertarians were right about people, we would have few drug dealers.”

    Again, proof by assertion is very unconvincing.

    “I don’t know the answer to the problem.”

    But somehow, you just know that leaving peaceful people to intoxicate themselves without fear of getting locked up just isn’t it.

  3. Narcs have the easiest job in the world…just sit by the phone and wait for the narcos to drop the dime on the competition…Narcos are very rough on their women, so everybody know what they shouldn’t…Then when a particular dealer get too big for his britches, the narcs nab him when he get a delivery…At least that’s how they keep a handle on things here in north Canada…When I was flying to South America from Miami, it was very hard to distinguish between narcs and shit pushing narcos…

  4. Human beings are complex creatures– rational, emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual. Our spiritual and rational aspects are what separate us from animals. Impair a human being’s spiritual and rational capabilities, and you open the door to all kinds of perverse, self-destructive behavior– including substance abuse, deviant sex, superficial entertainments, and generally degraded human relationships. When the majority of a human population suffers from degraded rational and spiritual faculties, the result is a degenerate society that can be easily manipulated and controlled by psychopaths.

    Drugs, and drug abuse, is just one symptom to a much larger problem. Treating symptoms is palliative at best, and at worst, is simply an expensive and disruptive distraction from identifying and addressing the underlying disease itself. And when I say “disease”, I don’t mean that self-serving “addiction is a disease” bullshit that the (highly profitable) drug addiction “treatment” industry promotes. It’s a disease of a society at large, not of an individual.

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  6. I wonder what things were like over a century ago when drugs like cocaine were legal and opium dens existed in London. Did it become a serious problem or was it only a serious problem for a small number of addicts?
    In Holland, where some light drugs are legal, locals tend to take to them less than people do in other countries. Whether that would work with a drug like Cocaine, which is actually addictive, is another matter. Ideally, one small country would go it alone and we could all watch to see what happens there twenty years down the line.
    One of the most famous (as in best) mathematicians of the 20th century swore he can’t produce anything useful without amphetamines. Without them, he said, a blank page is just a blank page. Ideally, I would like people to be able to do whatever they want when it comes to drugs. That is a principled position but if the results are disastrous for many people then society would discard the principle. We live not by principles but by a patchwork of conflicting ideas, trying to find ways which work.

    • Cocaine was interdicted at the end of prohibition…where Coca Cola was popular, nobody drank booze…Fuzz had nothing to do…

      • Even Coca Cola have a lot of caffeine and phosphoric acid, which is quite addictive to some folks…One day, we flew freight from Miami to Buenos Aires in a DC-8-63…A plastic 50 gal barrel of coke syrup collapsed under too much weight in the tail of the airplane…Over Curacao, I went back for a leak in the porta-potty behind the cockpit when my shoes were sticking to the floor…the coke had seeped through capillarity over 200 feet from the back. At Buenos aires, they told us to come right back to Miami on a ferry permit….Once in Miami, they took the engines off and all the accessories, then the plane was cut up and made into beer cans…The phosphoric acid had totally destroyed the plane structure…Imagine what it does to your stomach!

  7. OT(ish) can’t resist…
    “Some kill over a lifetime like alcohol, Tap water in flint Mi., or smoking. Others kill quickly like meth, faulty mandatory auto safety requirements, or heroin. There’s often a criminal element around these things, which makes them a social problem,
    I used to wonder if “gub’mint” ever ran “wood” alcohol, and second hand automotive radiator condensers (or turned a blind eye)
    Just like running “assault rifles with high capacity magazines” over the boarder….just to gin up the need for gub’mit.

  8. The acts and constitutional amendments that changed America (or marked the passing) were between 1906 and 1920. We do all know what 1906 was?

    It may be that the accumulated weight of bad decisions and turns taken leaves us left with little choice in making our own decisions.

  9. “..You need cops to keep the junkies from robbing people to feed their habit.”
    Not so…
    See, it’s like this:
    If ALL drugs were legal they’d be as affordable as , say…HEALTHCARE! , WELL within the means of the welfare
    allotment for folks who must ….say, pick up the bodies, and dig graves (unskilled labor) for dead addicts, to get their “free” charitable allowance.
    Kinda’ like “Rabbits for food or pets”, that even Malthusians would approve of, because rabbits on Meth are too stupid to procreate, and have no teeth to feed themselves.
    I could be wrong.

  10. Sigh! Well I’ll be the bad guy this time.

    Death penalty for drug dealers and whipping on the public stocks for users intoxicated in public. Yeah, probably have to overthrow the current government first. If Attila the Hun can be considered a libertarian, then I’m a libertarian.

    • “whipping on the public stocks for users” ? Don’t be silly.
      No need. Just put users of “certain” drugs in in the public stocks, they’ll be screaming from withdrawal pretty quickly.
      Police have known this for YEARS, but THAT’s a matter for “unseen” holding cells.
      doubt they’d even feel the whipping. The cautionary tale to bystanders, in public, is a free bonus, .

      • Years ago Louis Anderson had a fairy hysterical bit about how to solve the drug problem, in those days crack. As I recall it involved giving people whatever drug they want but forcing them to take it in a cage in the zoo.

        • The British Navy had a fairy hysterical bit about solving their drug and homosexuality problem…keelhauling…Since the bottoms of ships were covered with barnacles, which are like razor blades, only skeletons would emerge from the other end…

  11. You say “that” when you should say “who”

    “a decent population of people *that* make bad choices,”

    “for those *that* may choose getting high over food”

    • I might offer “a decent population of people” can be diagrammed as a “a decent population”, and referring back to “a decent population” may correctly be referred to as a “population that ” and” who” is not necessarily required. But the real question is “Who” comes on a blog as well thought out and interesting as Z and finds grammar the place to add to the dialogue? Comment on Z’s always well though out commentary if you will but leave the grammar to public school, such as it is.

  12. I will never support Prohibition. Because:

    1. I get the bill for it. (doing my taxes now – holy crap!)
    2. It gives the government more power.
    3. It always leads to an escalation of violence between dealers and cops – which kills many innocent bystanders.

    • You always get the bill for drug use. That’s unavoidable. The question is how you plan to pay it.

      Controlling an unruly population always means government power. If the bangers of West Baltimore did not have the drug trade, they would have some other game. Violence rates in minority communities were just as high before the drug war as after.

      As I’ve said, I’m fine legalizing weed. Heroin and meth are drugs we can effectively police to the distant fringes. Whether we have the will anymore is debatable.

      • In theory having pot legal is a good idea. In practice though I’m against it.

        Out here in CA we more or less have legal pot (medicinal, which is abused like crazy). I know of more than a few people that have been in accidents because of a stoned driver. There aren’t pot breathalyzers in existence yet. And the laws against stoned driving are in their infancy.

        Worse still for me though, I get the next door neighbors smoking pot and the smoke wafts over and gets into my house. I’ve got little kids. I go over and tell them to knock it off – and they generally do, but what if they weren’t so agreeable?

        At least it isn’t 100% legal yet, so there is always the threat of calling the cops. But what happens when it becomes legal, and I don’t have the threat of calling the cops anymore to keep abusive neighbors compliant?

        • Libertarians are quick to point out the downside of prohibition. What they fail to grasp is life is nothing but trade-offs. Legals pot in Colorado has resulted in all sorts of innovation in the making of pot consumables. That has brought a whole new batch of unexpected problems.

          As I wrote elsewhere, the cost of the addicted is never going away. The debate is how we pay for it.

          • It’s scary to watch peanut popping meth-heads turn into walking mummies…All these Zombie movies and cartoons are the depiction of our times…We’re not at the brain chewing stage yet, but I wonder what future it is describing…

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  14. Read Theodore Dalrymple’s Second Opinion and you’ll see what the combination of drugs (legal and illegal) and the welfare state have done to about 25% of England’s population.

  15. “A libertarian society sounds great, as long as the society is full of libertarians able to live as rugged individuals, making no claims on their neighbors”

    Or, to put it another way: not acting like libertarians do and being responsible for their actions like a conservative would.

    The drug problem isn’t helped by a state that rewards people for not working (and it not working, have nothing to do all day but sit around taking drugs) and nor is it helped by a media machine that shows smack-heads, stoners and junkies as fabulous philosophers or able to produce great art. Better if Hollyweird could show them as incontinent, selfish wrecks, but that isn’t going to happen.

  16. That number of heroin users seems rather low.

    I prefer marijuana — smoked or vaped – to alcohol myself.

  17. ” No one wants to live in a world where some guy is snorting coke at your kid’s ball game.”

    Make that oxy or crystal meth and, out here in the hinterlands up on the ridges, we’re more than ten seasons into that already.

  18. Regarding the part that organized crime plays in all of this…..

    What portion of organized crime organizations owe their existence to the Volstead act?

    I once read (but candidly have never been able to verify) that the market for illegal drugs in the Greater Los Angeles area would dry up if the Los Angeles Police department stopped buying illegal drugs.

  19. You said roughly a quarter of Americans use illegal drugs, or about 300,000. We are a nation of over 300 million, so if the one quarter figure is accurate, you’re talking about 80 million or so. That’s hardly an insignificant number.

    • A quarter of Americans report using illegals drugs. Of those, only about 300,000 report using heroin.

      • A recent episode of Drugs Inc. looked at heroin use in Portland. What they found was that 80% or heroine users started off hooked on hydrocodone or oxycodone. When the feds tightened up regs regarding those two and dried up supply, Mexican cartels moved in with heroin as a cheap substitute. I’m inclined to believe we are about to see a lot more heroin on the street. Considering, I’ve seen users in my ED here in BFE KS, I think the number of users is growing fast.

          • chronic pain and willing dr.’s. Mainstream medicine has contributed to the problem, but that’s probably worth an entire blog post of it’s own.

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