Sunday, October 23, 2016

Flaky Allies on Drug Legalization - Hippies and Other Anti-Market Leftists

Usually it’s a good thing when people who don’t share your values nevertheless agree with you on some policy position. You can at least form a winning coalition that can change policy in the right direction. But the disagreement can be toxic and lead to some policy proposals or changes that you aren’t on board with. I want to discuss a few bad argument that I hear from some advocates of drug legalization and explain why they're wrong.

Leftists and libertarians both tend to support drug legalization, or at least some form of drug reform. Not everyone on the left is in on this, but most young people I know are at least somewhat hip to it, and most of the “secular liberals” I knew in college were, too. But these broad groups of people give different reasons to support legalization.

For libertarians, it’s a basic moral principle that human beings own their bodies. Even if someone does commit self-harm, it’s within his/her right to do so, so long as they aren’t hurting somebody else. Libertarians also give practical arguments for legalizing drugs, such as that black markets create more violence and the wildly fluctuating drug purity that leads to overdose deaths and poisonings from drug adulterants. In this view, legal markets are peaceful, even if sometimes highly competitive. Market forces, such as the loss of repeat customers and the threat of lawsuits, discipline businesses to provide safe and high-quality products. Alleged lapses in this market discipline, rather than refuting the libertarian view, often demonstrate that such market forces are working. The disgraced company typically loses market share and faces large settlements to claimants for its wrongdoing. Part of the left’s worldview is that big businesses can just arbitrarily “have their way”, as if these market forces didn’t even exist.

It’s in failing to understand these market forces that leftists make flaky allies in this fight. In one breath they will condemn the government for banning a useful medicine with an excellent safety profile (cannabis), and in the next breath they will condemn pharmaceutical companies for “foisting” prescription painkillers on us. Opioids cause a few overdose deaths for sure, but they are a godsend to many people living with crippling chronic pain. Leftists desperately want to tell this anti-big-business narrative, which is a major piece of their worldview. So they end up betraying and undermining some of the better arguments for legalization. I recently saw this behavior in a video of people protesting the recent attempt to ban the pain-relieving substance kratom. Some kratom users were holding up signs blaming the pharmaceutical industry, and others were explaining how dangerous opioid painkillers are. (See the sign at 1:08 in the video, saying "Opiates Kill, Kratom Saves.") Hey, man, if kratom works for you that’s great. But consider that it might not work for somebody else, and that opioids are the only drugs that allow this person to function properly. Some of these legalization advocates are committing the same sin as the DEA. They are trying to prescribe and proscribe substances for every occasion, rather than giving people the freedom to choose which substances make them feel better. In doing so, they risk alienating or even demonizing some of their allies.

I have heard Tommy Chong deride Sudafed, an incredibly useful anti-cold medicine with a  very good safety profile, by saying (paraphrasing here): Yeah, you got a cold, why not just take some meth? (Here's the 6-second segment that I probably saw. Perhaps there's more context in the full video, but I think my summary is fair.) Forget for a second that the dangers of methamphetamine are grossly exaggerated, here we have Tommy Chong, a man at the tip of the legalization spear, deriding a safe and effective medication. To take another example, I had a hippie friend in grad school who argued that marijuana should stay illegal because it would become too “corporatized” if it were legalized. You’d end up with “the McDonaldization of cannabis”, to use a phrase I heard a few times in the run-up to California’s 2010 legalization initiative. In other words, it’s worth violently harassing dealers and users if we can stop a legitimate business from forming, because legal businesses control their customers (or something). This person was arguing that companies exert insidious control over their customers, addicting them not just to sugary snacks or tobacco in general, but to, say, “McDonalds French Fries” or “Marlboro cigarettes” in particular. It’s as if the customer has no free-will with which to say "No" to that particular product or even to choose a substitute. I thought it was a silly argument, and I said so at the time. This was well before I was a self-identified libertarian, but I already knew at the time that these kinds of mind-control conspiracy theories were nonsense. They certainly aren’t compelling enough to justify threats of violence and *actual* violence on a massive scale, as in our current policy, to deter drug suppliers.

A common refrain among legalization advocates is that marijuana, psilocybin, kratom, and other potential medicines are naturally occurring plants. A pharmaceutical company can’t patent it, so nobody will bother with expensive clinical trials. This argument is supposed to paint pharmaceutical companies as amoral, cynical avatars of capitalist excess. In reality, this argument is a critique of the FDA’s overly-restrictive approval process for new medicines. The libertarian fix to this problem is to eliminate the FDA’s power to deny access to medicine, such that any private company could sell these plants as medicine without the FDA’s approval.  The reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to do clinical trials would be a non-issue if such trials weren’t required by the FDA. We have two federal agencies that ban substances: the FDA and the DEA. Both cause serious problems. Both deny people useful medicine. Both impose policies that kill a lot of people. Unfortunately, left-wing drug reformers only seem to care about one of them. (Read this for a nice literature review outlining the incredible harm caused by the FDA. Long-ish, but well worth the time.)

I’d encourage some soul-searching by my fellow drug reformers on the left. Do you accept the notion of self-ownership or not? Is your body yours to pollute if you so choose? Or are you just using this as a convenient argument for those substances you’d like to see legalized? If you’ll concede that legalizing heroin will lead to a cleaner, safer legal supply, why does this argument not extend to other pharmaceuticals? Do you see how it makes little sense to limit harm by legalizing heroin if you're going to turn around and ban competitors to the Epipen or new anti-depressants? To those self-contradicting individuals who wish to “decriminalize” rather than to fully legalize drugs: Why is it okay to purchase and use a substance, but not to *sell* it? In the end the harm comes from the user, not the seller. It's convenient to blame the dealer as some kind of "profit-monger" or "death-merchant," but let's not forget that the addict is morally responsible for the harm he caused, and that most users don't end up having problems with their drug use. I think there is some facile anti-market, anti-business populism at work here. Leftists think that it’s intrinsically corrupting for money to change hands, and this assumption needs to be rethought. 

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