Alan Roebuck has posted a fine essay by Robert Locke on why Americans should support a continuation of the “war on drugs”: “Robert Locke on the War on Drugs” (Front Page Magazine original). Locke’s essay is thirteen years old but remains quite timely, given recent legislative changes at the state level. It is the best argument that I have heard against drug legalization. I have often leant toward drug liberalization because the “war” seems to cause more harm than the social ills that it seeks to remedy. (Full disclosure: I do not plead for myself. I mistrust introducing novel chemicals into my body and come pretty close to the Christian Scientists’ employment of medicine. The extent of my drug use since I was a high school freshman is required vaccines for school and two doses of ibuprofen—one for a broken bone and the other for a mysterious leg infection that I got in Costa Rica. Of course, I never sought medical treatment for either.) Moreover, the social surveys about lifetime and recent drug use are pretty shocking. I do not agree that we should legalize activities that “people will do anyway,” obviously—such would lead to anarchy, as there will always be criminals. However, I am sympathetic to those folks who argue that legalizing marijuana, for instance, would allow the state to regulate a drug that many Americans use regardless of the law. Besides, I have known many people who use marijuana recreationally and who seem to be quite functional and cause no issues for their neighbors or friends. Marijuana may harm their productivity, but so do television and video games. If we allow cigarettes and liquor (or Facebook or Twitter), why not cannabis?
Locke’s essay is a powerful “snap out of it” rejoinder, and he is right. Locke argues:
If drugs were legalized, they would rapidly become socially acceptable. The vast majority of people in this country still take law seriously, and disapprove of drugs (and refuse to tolerate drug use in their friends, children, or employees) in the final analysis because they are illegal. The fact that drug use is illegal is the only thing, in our let-it-all-hang-out society, that makes it socially possible for people to be openly intolerant of them. If everyone worked in offices where some of their coworkers were snorting cocaine at their lunch hour, it would not be socially possible to be adamant about [opposing] drug use because they would have to get along with the drug users. Given the anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws that already exist to protect lawful activities, they will eventually be forced to do so. Thus because of the social dynamic of people needing to get along with others, what is permitted in practice will inevitably drag people’s beliefs along with it. And when the social stigma goes, the least coercive and least governmental factor containing drug use will be gone.
Indeed! Ann Coulter has often argued against drug liberalization with libertarians by stating that we can legalize pot once we no longer have a welfare state that charges sober workers the inevitable social costs of accepted (and increased) drug use. Locke’s point is more profound; in our liberal society, vices are not simply tolerated but celebrated and subsidized. It is quite likely that his predictions would come true if (when?) libertarians succeed in decriminalization. On the other hand, such has not been the case with tobacco—a product that excites near prohibitionist feelings among the managerial class. Then, again, tobacco is an old, Southern grown product without any taint of marginalization to make it seem cool with the ever oppressed set. As far as I know, it has never been illegal in the Anglosphere and therefore lacks the thrilling subversive image that drugs and even alcohol have acquired. I would further argue that antipathy toward tobacco use has risen with increased awareness of its health risks and that, contra Locke, we should expect the same with dangerous drugs, but this same dynamic gets complicated in our screwy society and cannot be trusted to predict Americans’ attitudes and behavior with other harmful practices (see “Ad Bestialitatem” and “The Bloomberg Fallacy” for more inconsistencies among the public health totalitarians). What a messy toke!