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Are "drugs" "bad?"

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Some of the comments made to Rob’s post on the devastating effects the U.S. drug war has on Mexico and other nations take the view that (simplifying somewhat) yes, “drugs” produce a net negative effect in society, and would continue to be an overall negative phenomenon if we had less insane drug policies, but that draconian criminalization does more harm than good.

Some of this is in reaction to Scott the Very Odd Liberal’s view that we ought to prohibit alcohol and cigarettes (and prescription drugs!) — a position that one would think is so self-evidently nutty that there’s no need to make a bunch of “yes, but” concessions.

The biggest problem with prohibition isn’t that it doesn’t “work” (although of course it doesn’t). The problem is that if it did work, even without employing massive authoritarian measures which are clearly bad in themselves, it would still be a bad thing.

That’s because the basic principle behind the attempt to eradicate the use of large categories of mind-altering substances is wrong. That principle is that drugs do more harm than good.

Let’s take the case of alcohol. Now there is no question that alcohol abuse does a significant amount of social damage. It is, almost every non-drug warrior agrees, a more dangerous and damaging drug than marijuana. I’ve seen people close to me do very serious harm to themselves and those who love them through the long-term abuse of alcohol. Does that make alcohol “bad?” Would the world be a better place if someone could wave a magic wand and there were no alcoholic beverages, in other words, if we could have a “costless” (in the direct sense) prohibition?

This strikes me as so obviously untrue that it isn’t worth arguing over. For the vast majority of people who use alcohol, it’s a life-enhancing experience — often significantly so.

Now I’m going to propose something more radical: what’s true for alcohol is true for most if not all mind-altering substances. Most people who use most mind-altering substances don’t become addicts, don’t do serious damage to themselves, and get benefits, often great benefits from their use. This is obvious if you consider the tens of millions of Americans who have used illicit drugs — yes, even the scariest, “hardest,” “worst” such drugs — and then compare that number to the number of people who develop serious substance abuse problems.

And those of our fellow citizens who do develop such problems are disproportionately poor, discriminated against, or otherwise in socially fragile situations — situations that themselves have more to do with why drugs end up having bad effects in such peoples’ lives than anything inherently “bad” about the substances themselves.

Do we really want a world without morphine and its derivatives? Think about that for a second. And if you’ve never been in excruciating need of a powerful pharmacological palliative, you might want to think about it some more.

Do we really want a world without hallucinogenic drugs? Read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Read about Native American peyote rituals. And so forth.

Drug abuse is obviously a serious problem. That’s because the abuse of any powerful, potentially life-transforming substance or practice is by definition a serious problem. Science is abused, literature is abused, sex is abused, food is abused — basically everything that makes life worth living is for that very reason going to be abused.

The answer isn’t to try to get rid of those things. Prohibition strategies would do even more damage if they actually worked.

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