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.