Monday, August 27, 2007

To Ban It or Subsidize It

The Wall Street Journal today had another excellent editorial piece entitled "Canada's Shooting Gallery" by the Americas columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady. In it, she describes how the city of Vancouver, Canada, pays for a center that will inject the addicts' drugs into them free of charge. Here is my letter to her:

Dear Mary,

I want to concur in your assessment of Vancouver’s shooting gallery. I traveled to Vancouver recently for the first time, and happened upon East Hastings Street. I have lived in New York for over 20 years, through some rough times such as the crack epidemic of the early 1990s. Yet that left me unprepared for what I saw. Human zombies were wandering everywhere in the middle of the day. People appeared to be inhaling crack from a many-tubed “hookah” that looked like an octopus. Zombies congregated in alleys. It was incredible. I thought of the place as the center of a vortex of whirling bums, drug addicts and prostitutes sucked in from all corners of North America. It was a Mecca of self-imposed human misery, and it was paid for by Canadian taxpayers.

I am completely for legalization of all drugs. If people want to destroy themselves (or enhance themselves with safe mood-altering substances such as alcohol and caffeine which, thankfully, remain legal), it is their right. But the alternative to banning drugs is not to subsidize them. That is the statist solution. A vice is either banned or subsidized. What kind of choice is that? Both answers are wrong. We either lose our liberties, or pay for others’ vices. Lost in this false alternative is individual liberty, where people are simply left alone to live their own lives, productively or not, as they see fit. Reality is punishment enough for drug addicts. Only a minority of people will choose that lifestyle because it is so self-destructive; their numbers are further reduced through early death. Subsidize that? It’s insane.

By the way, apart from East Hastings Street, I really enjoyed Vancouver. Its harbor area full of skyscraper condominiums was gorgeous, if only a little bit too indicative of “zoned perfectionism.” In fact, the flip-side of areas zoned solely for beautiful, stylish skyscrapers is squalid areas that excel in squalor. Making housing of a particular form exclusive through zoning pushes other people into ever more marginal areas, such as E. Hastings.

But that is another discussion...



Edited 8/30/07: Changed title. Original title: "Canada's Shooting Gallery."

Published on 8/30/07 as letter to editor in Wall Street Journal by the non-pseudonymous me.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for the article recognizing the false dichotomy of ban or subsidize. The point needs to be hammered home, as you have done.

GB: "I am completely for legalization of all drugs."

For polemical purposes I usually add " -- for sane adults." Of course, normally for any political discussion, unless specified otherwise, the assumption is that the principles under discussion apply to sane adults, that is, those legally responsible for their actions and at liberty to act.

However, adding " -- for sane adults" pre-empts the usual conservative objection: "But ... but ... what about the children? You want nine-year-olds free to choose heroin?"

Giving destructive "street" drugs to children should be subject to law, I hold, but, not being a philosopher of law I am unsure how to specify the penalty or parents' recourse.

Again, thank you for the post.

Galileo Blogs said...


I agree with you in principle, although I have not fully thought through how the state should protect children versus parents protecting them. I keep thinking how kids get alcohol anyway, despite a legal drinking age. Conversely, some kids behave responsibly toward alcohol, even when they can get it without the knowledge of their parents.

Of course, the principle of "age of majority" is a valid one. Only adults can sign legally enforceable contracts, etc. Just how this principle applies in the area of drug/alcohol use is what I am questioning here.

I can see the argument for a state-mandated minimum drinking age, but I think parents should be able to permit their kids to drink if they feel they can drink responsibly. Some 16 year olds are far more mature than 21 year olds. In other words, parents should be able to exempt their children from the legal minimum drinking age. If their kids behave recklessly, presumably the state could revoke the permission to drink granted by the parents or even hold the parents liable for their child's actions.

The same argument applies to mind-altering drugs. For example, although I do not smoke marijuana, I know people who do. Although many people undoubtedly suffer from using marijuana, the people I know who smoke it suffer no ill effects that I can see. They are productive and seem happy.

Should a 17 year old be allowed to smoke marijuana? Again, I am inclined to favor the position that the state can only say no if it offers parents the ability to permit their children to do so. (If I were the parent of a 17 year old, I would not let him smoke marijuana. Depending on his maturity, I probably would let him drink beer and wine on occasion.)

Obviously, giving alcohol or marijuana to a 5 year old would be child abuse. However, there is a grey area where the state should defer to the authority of parents.

We must also bear in mind that concomitant with the freedom to ingest mood-altering drugs is the freedom to ingest any drug that can benefit human life, whether in terms of health, comfort or even pleasant mood altering effects. Adults should be able to determine how these products are used both for themselves and their children, until it clearly becomes child abuse.

johnnycwest said...

I am late to this discussion, but this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart - not the ingestion of drugs - but the whole idea of drug addiction. This subject is so confounded with myths and number one is the idea that addiction is a disease.

I have not read this book, but I intend to: Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy by Theodore Dalrymple. The author is a physician and social commentator. He writes about the myths of drug addictions and particularly the class of drugs your blog post discusses. The treatment industry, as some call it, is predicated on flimsy science and psychology. This idea of a government supported shooting gallery is just another brick in the wall of the insane paternalism and puritanism of our government.

My direct knowledge of mind altering drugs does not extend past alcohol and marijuana. I am convinced however, that drug abuse is a symptom of profound emotional and psychological problems, and not their cause. Drugs can and do allow people to avoid facing the root causes of their problems, which leads them to perpetuate and increase their misery.

As in most areas of life, bad philosophy and bad underlying ideas are the central problems. Drugs are just a prop and a manifestation of those bad ideas.

Galileo Blogs said...


I agree with you. I remember reading once that a number of people have injected themselves with heroin and not become addicted. The same applies to cocaine. Certainly, it is true for millions of alcohol drinkers.

The key factor *must* be the psychological health of the drug user. The fact is, nearly no one who is psychologically healthy today would inject himself with heroin. Therefore, it is unsurprising that those who do inject themselves with heroin become addicted. Also, it is the addicts whom the police and hospitals see, not those who tried it once or twice and never again (assuming they really do exist).

In my opinion, both the puritan and the libertine sides of the same coin of selflessness must be removed from the discussion of drugs. Instead, a more interesting question for me is: What types of drugs, in what quantities and for what purposes, would psychologically healthy, rationally selfish individuals take if all drugs were legal?

I suspect that a wide range of drugs would be appropriate. For example, people take alcohol for relaxation and to aid enjoyment in social settings. People also take a wide variety of drugs that they legally get from a psychiatrist, such as sleeping pills, anti-anxiety pills and, in the medical treatment category, anti-depression pills.

What about other, interesting drugs out there, such as coca leaves that are brewed in teas and legally and regularly drunk in the Andean countries? Such coca leaf tea is said to alleviate fatigue and also dull mouth and stomach pains.

I ask these questions, not as a selfless bohemian, but as a rationally selfish individual who wants all forms of non-self-destructive pleasure.

For the record, I am not really interested personally in experimenting to find the "right" drug. The only drug I use is alcohol, which I enjoy. In general, I will leave it to legalization and others' experimentation to find good drugs to safely and enjoyably ingest. Having said that, if I find myself in Peru, I might try the coca leaf tea. An old and, incidentally, very wealthy Peruvian I ran into speaks very highly of its virtues.

johnnycwest said...

I agree with you - alcohol does it for me and in smaller doses than when I was young. Marijuana is enjoyable too - it definitely alters one's consciousness. I am not sure the effect is so much global impairment, but it does alter the focus of one's consciousness. You see things in a different way and it is enjoyable without losing your reason.

As far as addiction goes - tobacco is likely one of the most physically addictive substances and people quit all the time. And many people smoke socially without becoming addicted. Addiction is largely a psychological process.

Drugs are often used by people to escape reality and big surprise - they go nuts and detach from reality. The drug may have helped, but it was their mind and thoughts that really did the job. The loss of rationality was at least partially volitional apart from the decision to take the drug. You and I could take opiates and function just fine.

I remember a study that looked at business people making decisions after a liquid lunch compared to sober controls - the outcomes were the same, but the decisions took longer to arrive at.

Drugs certainly alter one's thinking temporarily, but the effect is likely less than many peoples' changes in behavior would lead one to believe. The one exception to this would be LSD - that stuff temporarily rewires the individual neurons in the brain. Uh - no thanks. I cannot imagine impairing my brain like that.

Like you, I have zero interest in experimenting myself, but I believe that drugs are used as an excuse for a lot of behaviors, and they are not generally the demons they are made out to be with a few exceptions. Habitual and chronic use is another issue entirely and certainly would lead to more significant negative changes in many cases.

We may be on the cusp of a revolution in understanding the brain as long as science continues to hold to reason and reality. I believe temporary psychotropic drug use is appropriate and helpful in many cases,but there is much to be learned. In the meantime, let us know if you are ever in Peru and try the local vegetation.