Sunday, March 4, 2012

Drugs Are Perfectly Safe, Unless TMZ Has Ever Written About You

The whole furore (mercifully dying down now) over Whitney Houston’s death gave me cause to reflect on the odd way that the average person of Intelligent Socially Acceptable Opinion tends to hold two fairly contradictory ideas about drugs in their head at the same time.

The first idea is that drugs are basically not harmful on their own – the main ill effects are actually just results of prohibition. Overdoses typically tend to be related to questions of uncertainty about the purity of the drug, which is a natural consequence of the market being unregulated and illegal, since drug dealers will cut the drugs with all sorts of nasty chemicals. If we made drugs legal, people could take them in a controlled environment with known purity, thus eliminating most of the bad side effects.

The second idea is that celebrities tend to die younger than the average person, often because of the effects of extended drug use – Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, etc. etc. Sometimes this was related to illegal drugs (Houston, Winehouse), sometimes prescription (Jackson, Ledger). But the effects of long term drug use made Amy Winehouse (and to a lesser extent, Whitney Houston) look like a walking corpse even before she died, just like Lindsey Lohan has started to age really badly.

It should be obvious to you by my juxtaposing the two that these arguments cannot both be right. Personally I think it is the first one that is faulty. I’m a supporter of quite a lot of drug legalization, and it’s true that there are a bunch of problems that come about mainly through prohibition (crime, wasted police and prison resources, instability in Latin America, erosion of civil liberties) and a bunch more that are exacerbated by prohibition (drug deaths). These provide a totally sufficient reason to legalise drugs.

But that’s a far cry from saying that drugs (with the arguable exception of pot) are free from significant long term health and mortality risks. People kill themselves deliberately and accidently from all sorts of drugs – alcohol, painkillers, diet drugs, heroin, meth, and all the rest. Not to mention combinations of all these, or combinations of these with cars/bathtubs/heavy machinery/the ocean/busy highways. I imagine that the problems of purity are significantly overstated – people know exactly what the purity of a vodka bottle is, but it doesn’t stop people drinking themselves to death one way or another. It’s entirely unclear how legalizing Cocaine would have had the slightest effect on the likelihood of Houston accidentally drowning in a drugged out haze.

Not everything that we make legal is necessarily desirable. The mistake of the liberal consensus opinion is that a lot of liberals have little intrinsic concept of the idea of letting people freely choose things that may be costly mistakes. Libertarians (and some Conservatives ) tend to be open about giving people the freedom to make bad decisions, partly as a matter of liberty, partly as a reflection on the futility of trying to do otherwise. But since the nanny-state types (mostly liberal) tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of letting people make bad choices, they need to convince themselves that the drugs themselves must be good or at least neutral, and all the problems due to government action.

They’re wrong. Unless you’re willing to make the strong form argument that Winehouse wanted to inject herself to death, having more people using meth or heroin is a clear cost to both society and themselves. And a support for legalization does not require a blindness to this fact.

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