Friday, July 1, 2011

Drug Legalization versus American Idol

Professor Peter Stromberg over at Psychology Today wrote a great piece yesterday: Is it Time to End the War on Drugs? He makes an interesting claim: our modern society is based on artificial entertainment. Whether it is movies, video games or legal and illegal drugs, we find ways to stimulate our brains, and as a society we place high value on those things that do it the best. Honor, piety and moderation have been replaced by the latest blockbuster movie.

I've always thought that drugs should be decriminalized. During my three-year residence in New Orleans, I witnessed the terrible price of the war on drugs first hand. Virtually everyone I knew was affected by a drug-related crime, usually a theft. My neighbor, a sixty-seven-year-old retired civil engineer and recent widow, was murdered by an addict when he came home during a burglary in progress. My route to work went through "The Projects" where schoolchildren had to dodge bullets on their way to their elementary schools.

If drugs were decriminalized, a huge fraction of the crimes in America would simply cease. Drug addicts need their drugs every single day, and for many or most of them, theft and prostitution are the only way to feed their addiction. Each person addicted to an illegal substance affects hundreds or thousands of innocent victims every year.

Stromberg suggests that if we do decriminalize or legalize drugs, there will be an inevitable rise in drug use. This is hardly news. But Stromberg points out that where this might have been a modest problem in the past, our new culture that worships artificial stimuli will probably embrace drugs if they're legalized.

I decided to write to Professor Stromberg with a question:
You correctly point out that addiction rates are strongly correlated with the availability of drugs, and thereby suggest to your readers that decriminalizing drugs would cause more damage than good. But this is a false conclusion. If one takes the whole cost to society into account, it's clear that decriminalizing drugs would be a huge benefit, even though there would surely be more addicts. ... If drugs were decriminalized, a huge fraction of the crimes in America would simply cease. Drug addicts need their drugs every single day, and for many or most of them, theft and prostitution are the only way to feed their addiction. Each person addicted to an illegal substance affects hundreds or thousands of innocent victims every year.
Professor Stromberg replied almost immediately. He responded in part:
I do not in fact think that decriminalizing drugs would do more harm than good, if this is what comes across in my post then I've not communicated my point very well. Rather, my intention was to say that neither the war on drugs nor legalization is going to resolve problematic drug use in our society. I'm trying to add another dimension to our discussion of these issues by pointing out that our culture encourages drug use at the same time as it prohibits it.
This is a new facet of the drug problem I'd never considered before. Drugs can be phenomenally addictive, physically and psychologically. Drug addiction has been a problem since drugs were first discovered. Sigmund Freud himself discovered the terrible addictive power of cocaine when experimenting with it as an anesthetic for eye surgery.

But in times past, drug use was stigmatized, and addiction was treated as a vice. Most people worked from sunup to sundown on farms or in factories, and merely staying alive and healthy were enough to keep everyone pretty busy.

Today life is all about filling our leisure time. When the front-page news is about who won American Idol (or its even more over-the-top successors), Professor Stromberg's thesis begins to make sense. In a culture that worships entertainment, how will legalized drugs be viewed? Will the stigma drop away?

The one thing that I know won't help solve the problem is our useless religion-based "war on drugs." There's no place in the world for moralistic solutions that have no scientific or sociological foundation. We need to replace our outdated policies with honest debate about solutions that actually work.


  1. I am against drug use, but I am for legalization of some drugs. That being said, I don't know that crime would stop if drugs were legalized. Less addictive substances would probably become less associated with drug use, sure, but a heroin addict might still be willing to take from others to feed his habit, legal though it could become.

    I think it's a terribly difficult issue to combat because each element of life touches it. I look at my small son and I hope he never uses drugs, but I know that may not be realistic. I also know I can't control him at a certain point, and I think government should start to recognize that, too.

    I would also like to see thousands of innocent persons in other countries (Mexico comes to mind) have an opoprtunity to live without the fear of constant gang wars due to the addiction that affluent countries have to drugs. I often wonder if drug users ever think about how many people may have died so they could get high, and if they even cared.

    On that line of thought, I've considered anti-drug laws to be along the same lines as safety helmet and seat belt laws. They're to protect you against yourself, but is that what the government is for? To decide how to protect ourselves from injury?

  2. as a recovering addict,Id like to respectfully disagree on on one point.I don't think that use would drastically increase with decriminalization/ my experience most people who want to use drugs are.very few refrain because its illegal(although some do)drugs are so readily available any increase in use would be modest,well in my opinion.

  3. I have never seen a cogent argument for keeping alcohol legal and other drugs, especially marijuana, illegal. It appears to me that the legality has more to do with legal system's overall assessment of the kind of person who would take a certain kind of drug. If all of one's pals drink, some to great excess, no problem. If the kid of one of one's pals tries marijuana, gets caught, and is sent to prison, well, he knew what he was getting into. (Also, it would be good to examine court records to find out which drug defendants get sent to prison and which ones get only a slap on the wrist.) We're past hypocrisy on this subject in that we have begun believing our own BS, which I suggest makes us delusional. As you said, Craig, an addict harms only himself and his support group until he needs to commit crimes to support his habit. Then the circle of pain widens. So, take the money we're spending on the Drug War (nasty term that) and put it into preventive education and rehab. However, how can one educate against drug abuse without also doing so against the abuse of booze?


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