Russia, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll (2): How Best to Keep Rockin' in this Drugged Free World

Drugs are a menace of that there can be little doubt. With considerable personal experience of their downside, Neil Young made it the subject of many of his songs. One of these songs was ‘Keep Rockin’ in the Free World’ from his 1989 album Freedom.

Sadly, its deep and bitter irony was lost at the time of glasnost upon the Soviet youth who at rallies used enthusiastically to chant its chorus as a paean to freedom.

The verse in that song dealing with drugs runs:

 I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
Near a garbage can
Now she puts the kid away,
and she’s gone to get a hit
She hates her life,
and what she’s done to it
There’s one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool. 

 Despite their many ill-effects, such as those about which Young sung, there are many  advocates of the free society today who maintain that all societal attempts to curtail the consumption of currently illicit drugs wreak far more havoc than they succeed in preventing. With ever growing voice, these critics of current drugs laws claim the time has come for societies like America finally to admit defeat in their forty-year old war against drugs and decriminalize, if not altogether legalise, them.

Increasingly, America, Britain and Europe seem about to yield to their calls and embark on the social experiment of decriminalizing, if not fully legalising, drugs.  I do not share the confidence of these drug-peaceniks that making drugs more easily available will reduce the overall costs currently associated with their consumption and with the efforts to stop it. It will merely substitute one set of social and personal ills for another that are liable to be far worse than those we already have. Here are my reasons for that scepticism.

All drugs, whose medically unauthorised possession is currently illegal, are illegal because their consumption is dangerous. Their consumption is dangerous, not because they are illegal, but because it carries profound risks to the health and well-being, not just of those who ingest them, but also to that of  third parties too. While by no means everyone who ingests illicit drugs necessarily thereby damages their health or well-being or that of anyone else, enough do to render their consumption hazardous. It is because no one can ever know in advance of ingesting them on any occasion whether, as a result, they will be causing damage to their own health and well-being or to that of any others.

Were currently proscribed drugs legalised or decriminalised, their consumption would almost certainly increase, as accordingly would the damage caused by their consumption. While their current legal proscription certainly imposes large economic and other costs both upon those who use them and upon society more generally in its efforts to stop their consumption, on balance, the costs of seeking to prevent their use through banning it are likely to be considerably less than the increased costs that would attend their increased consumption consequent upon either their legalisation or decriminalization.

Anyone who claims that I am exaggerating the likely costs of drugs being made more readily available are liable themselves to be underestimating one or both of the following two things. The first are the hazards to users and third parties of drug consumption. The second is the extent to which people are prone to engage in hazardous behaviours for the sake of short-term benefits such as pleasure, especially when they can do so without fear of penal sanction.

Last week on British prime-time national television, Conservative MP Louise Mensch spoke from personal experience about the hazards of drug use. On the BBC weekly current affairs programme Question Time, she candidly revealed the damage she had sustained to her own mental health from having earlier in life indulged in dangerous drugs which she refused to name so as not to glamorise them. She said:

‘I am somebody who has used drugs in the past, I have used class A drugs in the past, I said this when somebody attempted to blackmail me over the issue – during the Murdoch hearings. I thought it was better to come clean with the public and say: “Yes, I have done this.” And it’s something I regret incredibly, in my youth that I messed with my brain’.

‘Umm, I said we all do stupid things when we’re young; it’s had long-term mental health effects on me. It’s caused me to be more anxious than I need to be, it’s not something that anybody needs to glorify.’

‘Not speaking as somebody from the Ivory Tower, but speaking as somebody who’s had experience with it, I think legalization, making it more easily available to people is exactly the wrong way to go.’

As to the strength and ubiquity of the human propensity to indulge in hazardous behaviour, consider the following facts documented by Professors Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, and Angela Hawken in their very informative and well-balanced, slim volume Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2011):

Nicotine and alcohol… alone far exceed all the illicit drugs combined in the number of problem users and the resulting ill health and death. Tobacco is thought to kill about 440,000 Americans each year and alcohol 100,000 compared with a total of 25,000 for all the illegal drugs combined. Nicotine doesn’t generate crimes or accidents but alcohol does, and in massive numbers, accounting for a third to a half of violent crimes and motor-vehicle deaths in the United States.

In the case of nicotine, the facts about health risks have now been available for almost half century, and smoking has been the object of fairly aggressive taxation, a fairly strong public information campaign to make it unfashionable, and regulations to make it inconvenient… And yet about 20 per cent of each rising age cohort in the United States, and higher percentages in many other countries, still get hooked on smoking. If addiction to any of the currently illicit drugs were to rise to the level of addiction to nicotine in the form of cigarettes, that would count as a major public health disaster. [pp. 20-21] 

Having endorsed the current legal proscription of those dangerous drugs which are currently proscribed, it need not follow that one must or should also endorse any of the current penal regimes used to enforce their proscription. In particular, there is no need to, nor should one, support America’s current draconian policy of three strikes and out for all convictions for drug possession in however small a quantity. There are, other, far less harsh and more effective penal policies which could and should be adopted in their place.

One such is the so-called HOPE Program, HOPE being an acronym for Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement. As explained by Professors Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken:

 The HOPE program in Hawaii takes drug-involved offenders on probation (mostly chronic methamphetamine users) gives them a clear warning, and subjects them to random drugs tests and quick and predictable – but not severe – sanctions (days or weeks in jail) every time they use. Drug use among that group has plummeted; one year after starting the program 80 per cent have been drug-free for three months or more. [p.96] 

When the effectiveness of the HOPE program was recently evaluated by the National Institute of Justice, the Research, Development and Evaluation Agency of the US Department of Justice, it was found that:

Compared to probationers in a control group, after one year the HOPE probationers were:

  •  Fifty-five per cent less likely to be arrested for a new crime.
  •  Seventy-two per cent less likely to use drugs.
  •  Sixty-one per cent less likely to skip appointments with their supervisory officer.
  •  Fifty-three per cent less likely to have their probation revoked.

 As a result HOPE probationers served or were sentenced to 48 per cent fewer days, on average, than the control group.  

 Many libertarians and some classical liberals will be given to objecting to all drug laws on the grounds that, in their view, it should be entirely up to individuals themselves whether to incur the risks associated with drug-taking, while fully bearing the costs of any damage that they might as a result cause to themselves or others, should they cause any. The libertarian anti-psychiatrist Thomas Szasz spoke for them when he said:

 ‘I favour free trade in drugs for the same reason the Founding Fathers favored free trade in ideas: in a free society it is none of the government’s business what ideas a man puts in his head; likewise, it should be none of its business what drugs he puts into his body.’

I beg to differ. Just as the Founding Fathers did believe that government had a legitimate role to play in ensuring that all children born and growing up within America to be its future citizens received a basic education – indeed, that America’s being a free society depended upon their receipt of such — so likewise it is perfectly reasonable to believe it part of the legitimate business of government in a free society to seek to minimise the ingestion by its citizens of hazardous substances, within the limits of what it can do in this regard without violating any of their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Contrary to such libertarians and classical liberals who posit a basic right of humans to ingest whatsoever they like, I would maintain, following John Stuart Mill, that we should only consider ourselves as having moral rights to whatever society should protect us in the possession of for reasons of utility, understood in that broad way in which Mill understood the notion. So understood, I see no reason to posit us having any right to get off our faces on drugs, as I would and do, on this account, acknowledge we have to express and exchange opinions freely, subject to all the due caveats.

Hence, given the known hazards of currently proscribed drugs, by far the best way for us to keep rockin’ in our drugged free world, in my view, is without their legalisation or decriminalization.