This article is a response to an earlier piece “The right drug policy: decriminalize and discourage” by Thomas Savidge.
As libertarians, we often have the tendency to write off the good for the great when it comes to policy. While it’s easy to have these conversations, it’s important to remember that the implementation of policy is the hard part. In practice, we often find that the more “libertarian” a policy is, the more difficult it is to implement. In the real world, compromises have to be made. That said, in order to maintain the principled nature of our ideology, and push the Overton window towards freedom, we must continue to discuss these ideal policies.
I am not going to spend any time addressing the argument against prohibition in this piece. If you take a walk down the streets of any major city, it will be quite clear that prohibition is not working. However, if you still need more convincing on the matter, I encourage you to read this article by Audrey Redford. Instead, I am going to make the case for legalization and education, as opposed to decriminalization and discouragement.
Legalize vs decriminalize, what’s the difference?
It helps to think of drug policy as a spectrum. On one side, we have complete prohibition — think heroin or crystal meth — and on the other we have complete legalization, think Tylenol or Dayquil. Decriminalization covers a fairly wide section in the middle.
Decriminalization, as we define it today, removes the penalty for simple possession of drugs, but still enforces penalties on individuals found selling or trafficking these substances. Decriminalization is generally looked to as the least controversial of the drug reform policy options; we see modern decriminalization legislation as far back as Portugal in 2001, and, most recently, in British Columbia, Canada, earlier this year.
This policy is certainly better than prohibition; shifting our efforts from policing to harm reduction will undoubtedly save countless lives. It does, however, maintain the worst problems created by prohibition.
Is it really decriminalized if it is illegal to purchase?
Decriminalization removes the penalty for possession but provides no legal means of purchase. Some decriminalization policies do permit the “gifting” of drugs, which creates what is called a gray market.
Gray markets consist of clubs and stores offering memberships or merch for sale, those purchases just happen to come with a free gift of drugs. In Washington DC, for example, you can go to a gray market and buy a $50 sticker that comes with a free eighth of weed.
While technically legal, the vendors are still taking an extraordinary risk as their livelihood is dependent on the interpretation of the law. This leads to market conditions that are only marginally better than the black market.
If that seems like a far-fetched idea, just look at Delta-8 THC. Generally, when we talk about THC we are referring to Delta-9 THC, the most abundant and potent psychoactive cannabinoid. D8, however, is a naturally occurring psychoactive cannabinoid that is only slightly less potent than its brother D9.
The 2018 farm bill federally legalized hemp and hemp-derived molecules, such as D8, D11, CBD, HHC, and several other trace cannabinoids. Just this month, after almost 5 years of nationwide legal D8 sales, the DEA decided, of their own volition, to add D8 to Schedule I, federally criminalizing the sale of the substance, and shutting down hundreds of businesses across the nation that were completely legal a week ago.
Transparency and accountability
When you go to the store to buy Advil, there is never any concern that the pills you are purchasing contain anything but what is listed in the ingredients. However, when it comes to substances without any legal means of purchase, every sample is a roll of the dice.
If you go to a cannabis dispensary in a legal state, you will see shelves of products with multi-paragraph labels listing their lab results and a breakdown of all the trace chemicals found in the flower. If you want to try cannabis for the first time or the 100th time, it is easy to go to a dispensary and get what you are looking for.
Though the stakes for cannabis dosing and purity are usually fairly low, in extrapolating that pattern to other drugs, we start to see a significant benefit. Think of the number of lives that could be saved by drug users knowing exactly what they are buying. Gone would be the days of friends and loved ones overdosing on fentanyl-cut cocaine or methamphetamine and opiate-packed designer pills.
Decriminalization is lauded as a great step toward harm reduction, but it is significantly limited in the effect it is able to have.
Educate rather than discourage
For many decades in the United States, abstinence-only sex education was the default curriculum offered in schools. As time went on and sex became more socially acceptable, we began to notice an uptick in STIs and unplanned pregnancies among the nation’s youth.
To combat this growing issue, new curricula began to pop up around the country that strayed away from the strict abstinence-only approach that was proving increasingly ineffective.
By recognizing that teaching only abstinence was causing more harm than good, states were able to adapt to a new approach to sexual education focused on harm reduction — one that is actually effective in preventing STIs and unwanted pregnancies.
If you don’t already see where I am going with this, we have the exact same problem with drug education. Programs like DARE have been instilling the “not even once” mindset into young people since the 1980s.
The problem with this education style is that people still end up doing drugs. What happens when you’ve been told your entire life that one dose of something like cocaine will ruin your life, and it doesn’t? You realize you were lied to, and now you have no idea what is actually true.
The problem with drug usage is not that drugs are dangerous. We in the US are no strangers to danger, in fact, many of our favorite hobbies are extremely dangerous activities that we have learned how to do safely. Hunting, drinking alcohol, motorsports, and even football are all extremely dangerous activities, but we grew up with them. With proper education and precautions, none of these activities are thought to be dangerous enough to be eliminated from society.
Alcohol is a drug that, when introduced to communities that do not have a cultural history with the substance, is known to wreak havoc on the population. While there may be some epigenetics at play, the social education on the substance also has a huge effect.
As it turns out, one of the initial push backs against the idea of legalizing cannabis was that, unlike alcohol, it would be extremely difficult to gauge what constitutes a “dose” of the substance. For alcohol, we know that in the US, about an ounce and a half of liquor, 12 ounces of beer, and 5 ounces of wine all roughly equate to one drink. We weren’t taught this in school, yet anyone who consumes alcohol knows this.
Now, a decade into cannabis decriminalization/legalization, we have a significantly better societal understanding of the proper dosages of THC. Anyone who consumes cannabis with any frequency can tell you that, just about everywhere, edibles are sold in 10mg pieces.
Just as an alcohol consumer can tell you how many drinks they like to have for any given context, a cannabis consumer can quantify how much THC they prefer to consume as well. It doesn’t stop there either. Budtenders have a wealth of knowledge that they are happy to share with new customers that want to give cannabis a try.
Let’s extrapolate a little. We see a pattern here between alcohol and cannabis. When the substance is legalized, the industry around it is incentivized to provide the best possible experience for its customers. In some cases, that means providing the strongest possible product for the consumer, a symptom of every market in existence, but in the majority of cases, this just means transparency and replicability.
Budweiser is the number 1 selling beer in the world, not because it is particularly exceptional at anything, but because it is consistent. The consumer knows exactly what they are getting, every single time.
The fact of the matter is that anyone pushing to discourage drug use must first have a sufficient understanding of the “why?”
You shouldn’t drink coffee before bed. Why? Because it will keep you up all night. You shouldn’t drink alcohol and drive. Why? Because it impairs your judgment and reaction time, making it extremely difficult to drive safely. You shouldn’t do cocaine. Why? Because it’s illegal and it might be addictive sometimes, but we really don’t know a ton about it recreationally.
See how bad that argument is in comparison to the other more socially acceptable drugs? Discouraging any behavior is extremely ineffective without the proper education behind it.
So what do we do? For starters, get rid of the DARE-style education immediately. All the program has really done is ensure that every child in the US knows what crystal meth and heroin are in the 5th grade.
Second, we all need to have a greater understanding of the drugs that so often lead to community problems like homelessness and violence. If we have at least a surface-level understanding of these substances, then we are so much better equipped to prevent these problems from continuing.
Lastly, legalize everything. This is how we end the war on drugs.
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