The smart course or the stupid one: why legalizing drugs now is just common sense
Every once in a while someone tells me about a plan they’ve read that allows them to make 50,000 dollars an acre or something like it. They are excited, and don’t understand why more farmers don’t do this. My standing observation is that I can think of only a couple of crops that will make you that much money direct off the field, and these days, people send helicopters around to look for those crops and burn your fields, so I don’t recommend it. Occasionally they protest they will make that amount with a crop they will process for added value. I then have to inform them that no, one cannot offer boutique moonshine or organic, biodynamic local heroin under the current laws, and jam will not make them that kind of money.
Now let me be absolutely clear - I stand firmly on the side of drug legalization. I say this not so much because I want to take drugs - my nine consecutive years of pregnancy and nursing ended only recently, and so I’m quite out of the habit of indulging in anything other than the occasional beer or glass of wine, but because I think the drug war is, well, stupid.
Once upon a time, in my misspent youth, I did some casual drug use, some of it legal, some of it illegal. During a brief period in my 20s I drank too much, smoked tobacco, smoked pot, and used drugs occasionally. I rather enjoyed it until I experienced my first hangover and then, mostly stopped, the price not being worth the pleasure. I am rather typical of most of these drugs, in that I used them, sometimes to excess, but never became addicted. Most casual drug users (except casual tobacco users) don’t get addicted. There are manifestly some people who should avoid all drugs, legal and illegal, because of a tendency to become addicted. Other people should simply because they don’t tolerate them well - all the drugs my husband has ever used have simply made him nauseous, so he doesn’t use them, barring a little beer.
In a perfect world, there would be no addictive substances, no destructive substances, and we’d have no real urge to take poisons. But manifestly we do have such an urge - some of the come by prescription, others are legal but regulated, some legal and unregulated (think white sugar), and some are illegal. The major difference between them is the cultural assumptions we have about them - not their toxicity, not their harmfulness, and frankly, not their availability.
The war on drugs has not successfully kept people from doing drugs. My own plan, when my children are old enough to experiment with drugs, is to give them this lecture, at least in regards to pot. “Ok guys, here’s the truth. Your father smoked pot a few times. Your mother smoked pot. Most of your grandparents smoked pot, some of them quite extensively. Your great-grandmother Inge smoked pot (ok, once, with her daughter, and would I have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that event ;-)). Do you really want to do something so old-fashioned?” ;-) Let us note that pot was illegal in all of these cases, and even Grandma could get it. My own husband and I, never being much in the way of drug seeking for ourselves, both saw all the coke, LSD, meth and other drugs we could ever want lying around. No one seemed to have much trouble getting it - in fact, at college, it was harder to get beer sometimes. Were I to want any of these things today, I know precisely where to get them, in extraordinarily large quantities. Many of them aren’t even very expensive - I like good gin in my very occasional G & Ts, and a bottle would cost me more than more meth, coke or pot than I’d ever want to use (ok, more meth or coke than I’d ever want would be any quantity over 0).
Nor have the drug laws successfully prevented people from growing said drugs - we’ve been completely ineffective at stopping the Afghan opium trade, although we’ve poisoned and impoverished some already impoverished farmers as a moral lesson of some sort. We certainly feel entitled to bomb and poison Columbian fields, and to subsidize repressive regimes and wars in the interest of making a teeny, tiny rise in the price of coke.
Periodically low flying helicopters travel over the dairy farms and vegetable fields of my region. We always wave to them. This is, of course, a good use of our remaining energy and money - G-d forbid that the pot sold at my local university should enrich some local farmer rather than coming from some other state or nation. Much better the farmer should obey the law, sell out and let people build McMansions on their land, as one my neighbors did. Now there are 10 McMansions, all but two of which have turned over several times, two of which are in foreclosure. Had the price of dairy and apples not tanked, and pot been illegal, we’d have a nice chunk of farmland producing something rather useful - now we’ve got 10 houses on 5 acre lots that produce mostly lawnmower emissions and foreclosure notices.
George Monbiot wisely (as usual) gets to the heart of the matter - we are slowly starting to recognize what is self-evident, that the drug war is inane and a waste of energy, money and resources we cannot afford. He writes:
“It looked like the first drop of rain in the desert of drugs policy. Last week Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UN office on drugs and crime, said what millions of liberal-minded people have been waiting to hear. “Law enforcement should shift its focus from drug users to drug traffickers … people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution.” Drug production should remain illegal, possession and use should be decriminalised. Guardian readers toasted him with bumpers of peppermint tea, and, perhaps, a celebratory spliff. I didn’t.
I believe that informed adults should be allowed to inflict whatever suffering they wish – on themselves. But we are not entitled to harm other people. I know people who drink fair-trade tea and coffee, shop locally and take cocaine at parties. They are revolting hypocrites.
Every year cocaine causes some 20,000 deaths in Colombia and displaces several hundred thousand people from their homes. Children are blown up by landmines; indigenous people are enslaved; villagers are tortured and killed; rainforests are razed. You’d cause less human suffering if instead of discreetly retiring to the toilet at a media drinks party, you went into the street and mugged someone. But the counter-cultural association appears to insulate people from ethical questions. If commissioning murder, torture, slavery, civil war, corruption and deforestation is not a crime, what is?”
I’m right with Monbiot - rich assholes and casual users should be jailed, if anyone is going to be punished. Drug production, sales and use should either be illegal, universally punished, or legal - across the board. Screwing farmers and addicts and looking the other way when teenagers and rich assholes use drugs is immoral.
Which of course brings us to the gist of the matter - there’s no freakin’ way we can afford to have a consistent drug illegality, or a moral drug policy of any kind. California is about to start releasing its prisoners because it can’t afford to feed and house them. It can’t afford its helicopters either. And California is only leading the way - none of us can afford our insane drug policies which are energy and cost intensive. In fact, we can’t even afford our *immoral* double-standard drug policies anymore.
Moreover, while eventually prices will come down because of market flooding, legalization is the answer to much of our difficulties - tax revenues from pot alone would exceed California’s budget shortfall. The combination of freeing California drug offenders and legalizing pot would essentially fix California’s present crisis. The high initial price of drugs would be an excellent transition crop for small farmers, attempting to make a living as we shift away from industrial agriculture.
Now I have a great deal of sympathy for those who have been hurt by drugs, and I don’t like excessive drug use. I don’t like it when the drug is legal - two of my grandparents spent their last years hooked up to oxygen tanks, gasping with emphysema, even though both of them had stopped smoking more than 20 years before. I don’t like it when the drugs are illegal. But I think we can safely say that the illegality of drugs has done little discourage their use. What it has done is mean that their safety cannot be regulated, the drug trade is rife with violence, farmers cannot grow even non-drug crops like hemp, much less the drugs themselves, and drugs are not taxed.
Now Monbiot conceeds, and so do I, that drug trade legalization would collapse the price of drugs in the poor world, costing farmers, and creating more drug addicts there. This is true - at the same time, it would also reduce warfare and violence in the poor world. We do not know how the cost benefit analysis would actually come out - would it be better or worse for poor farmers to actually be able to take cocaine rather than sending their daughters to swallow cocaine-filled condoms and fly to the US? Neither is a good, but for once I’m on the side of the free-marketeers, because if nothing else, it creates the possibility that fair trade organic heroin, coke and pot might actually support some people sustainably.
Monbiot claims we have two ethical choices - universal prosecution of casual offenders and producers, or universal legalization. I’d argue that we only have one choice, because neither the US nor the UK can afford to keep up the fake war on drugs - the profits are too small, the energy costs too great - at every level from military interventions to drug interdiction, to the stupid helicopters to the court costs and prison costs, there is no meaningful way for a poorer, energy depleted society to prohibit drugs - even a rich, energy rich society can’t do it effectively, as we slide down the slope, we can’t do it at all.
Drugs are going to be legal, or effectively legal in time - and a damned good thing too for a host of reasons. First of all, it will be good for farmers - marajuana and hemp are good rotational crops in much of the US. Small farmers, developing new markets need high value crops - opium used to grow widely in the US, and could again. Moreover, local communities are going to need these medicinal crops - that is, we’re going to need the painkillers and anti-nauseal, anti-glaucoma qualities of pot and opiates. And yes, legalization is going to hurt some people - some people will become addicted, some people will die. It is also going to help some people - some people will not be impoverished, some people will not suffer.
The only choice is legalization - the question is when. We can do it one of two ways - the smart one or the stupid one. We can overthrow the drug laws largely and enmasse, creating new tax revenues, new sources of profit. We can ground the helicopters and stop the drug wars, and let out the non-violent drug offenders, and have money enough to insulate and buy open land for public agriculture and build local renewable energy systems. We can stop wasting our time keeping some toxic drugs legal and others not, and concentrate on the very real work of descent. Or we can keep the drug laws going as long as possible, and take our revenues out of the social safety nets that protect children, the poor, the elderly and the disabled. We can leave poor non-white guys who carried an ounce of marajuana in prison until the last possible minute, and instead sell off our public inheritance and waste the last few years we have to adjust to the future.
Me, I’m just crazy enough to prefer “not stupid” as a strategy all around. Maybe especially here.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.