The war on drugs hasn’t worked, but decriminalization has its own risks.
“Is this hell?” So Joseph Emerson asked himself, in the middle (so he says) of an experience with psychedelic mushrooms that had gone very wrong. Nothing unusual about that. Anyone who has been around users of psychedelic drugs, or drugs in general, knows that things sometimes go seriously wrong. They usually return to normal in a short time.
The complicating factor is that Emerson was sitting in the cockpit of a passenger plane, and the plane was in the air. He was not, thank God, one of the pilots. He was an off-duty airline pilot heading home. Imagining himself in a nightmare, he says that he decided to wake up by crashing the plane. He grabbed the fire suppression lever, which cuts off the fuel supply to the engines, before being brought under control. The danger appears to have been brief and limited. Still, Emerson faces 83 counts of attempted murder.
A few years ago, the United States began a huge national experiment in drug legalization, decriminalization, and destigmatization. Marijuana, now fully legal in 24 states, is the biggest part of this, but it doesn’t stop there. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, is now legal to possess in two states and several cities. Oregon decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs three years ago. Ecstasy is moving toward approval as a therapeutic product, a distinction that has already been granted to ketamine.
Meanwhile, the attitude toward drugs of the nice, boring, middle-class people I associate with has changed markedly. Rare is the person in my social circle who doesn’t chew marijuana gummies. I have several friends who take micro doses of LSD to improve their mood. This is not to mention the incredible prevalence of anti-anxiety medications, particularly benzodiazepines. At first glance, everyone is doing drugs.
I have a simple hypothesis about all of this: Over time, when you introduce large amounts of drugs into a large population of people, strange things happen. We have no idea how this experiment is going to turn out.
I don’t mean this in a reactionary way. I approve of almost any effort, no matter how stupid, aimed at having a good time. And the arguments against criminalizing most drugs except methamphetamine and fentanyl are strong enough: It’s expensive, it enriches the wrong people, it puts too many others in prison, and it encourages criminality in general. Laws controlling personal conduct should be avoided whenever possible. In the case of marijuana, specifically, prohibiting the ingestion of a common plant whose main side effect is passive stupidity seems simply crazy.
The problem is the unknowns. On my morning commutes in New York, I often share a subway car with a respectable citizen rolling a joint, ready to smoke his breakfast. Cannabis stores are everywhere. And although the effect of marijuana on most people is benign, any psychiatrist or a quick consultation with Dr. Google will inform you that there is a relationship, for a small minority, between marijuana and psychosis. Only when marijuana use becomes ubiquitous, which it will, will we find out how many of these people actually exist.
The best analogy for this is alcohol. We must remember, as our pipes bubble happily, how our entire society has been molded around the original legal drug. Our rituals are based on it. We teach young people about its dangers. We have an entire subculture, in Alcoholics Anonymous, that has grown to help people who have a deadly relationship with drinking. And yet, we bury 140,000 Americans a year who die from drinking too much; guns kill only a third of that number. This is what we pay for the freedom to drink. The bill for the freedom to use drugs has not yet been submitted.
Having made these scolding and sanctimonious observations, I offer my approval of the great decriminalization. We have tried the alternative and it has not been very good.
The point is to resist the kind of lazy libertarianism that seems part of the American character. We are eager, as a nation, to think that any rule imposed from above is either a profitable bureaucratic cog or a puritanical vestige of our religious past. The harm of eliminating laws, in this mentality, is limited to the lives of a few weak or foolish people who cannot handle their freedom. But our experience with alcohol should teach us that balances are much more difficult than that. Even laws that need to be repealed were usually written for a good reason.
Opinion of Robert Armstrong
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