Legalization of possession and use of marijuana is spreading gradually from state to state, but this should not be taken as a sign that the drug warriors have declared a truce in their murderous attempts to control what people smoke, ingest or inject. They have simply conceded one battle in this war, one that was becoming harder and harder to justify to the people of this country whose extorted tax payments fund this misguided adventure. Just as re-legalization of alcohol after prohibition was repealed did not lead to deregulation and free individual choice in when, where, and how people were allowed to imbibe, now-legal marijuana use is and will be regulated, controlled, limited, and taxed by those who feel it is their responsibility—no, right—to tell the rest of us how to live.
While alaska is still sorting out how to allow and supervise the now legal “freedom” to use marijuana, the experience in washington and colorado does not bode well for consumers of cannabis here. The government of washington heavily taxes both production and sale of this plant product, making off with $70,000,000 in unearned tax income in the first year of legal sales, while colorado skimmed off $44,000,000 in 2014 in return for doing nothing but interfering in economic transactions between willing partners. This raises the cost to the consumer and enables the cheaper “medical” marijuana and non-regulated black and gray markets to remain less expensive than, and thus competitive with, the officially sanctioned outlets. State regulation of the recreational pot trade has led to an increase in the number of folks getting “medical” IDs and the growth of semi-legal pot clubs and delivery services to circumvent the government-created inflation of cannabis prices.
This is not to say that the legal pot industry does not generate a profit for producers and vendors. Despite the higher prices, some users prefer legal to illegal businesses whether out of some distorted respect for state-defined law and order or because of the convenience of dropping in at the pot store when they need something to smoke instead of trying to arrange a meet-up with an unlicensed free trader. Because the state has much more control over legal than illegal business, it is likely the politicians will rethink their approach, as least in part, and cut some of the taxes and fees on legal pot so that it will be able to compete with the unregulated dealers. But for now, the approach to suppressing the unofficial trade in cannabis is that typical of governments and their bullies in blue: using force. In alaska the cops have taken to confiscating vehicles owned by a delivery service and then sending in a SWAT team to search their place of business, as well as conducting multiple searches of another pot enterprise. Meanwhile the alcohol regulators, who are chomping at the bit to have a go at legal marijuana businesses have ordered several cannabis clubs, where patrons bring and share their own stuff, to close because they sound like “bottle clubs” which our masters have decided are too dangerous to the public be allowed to do business in the open. The urge to push other people around for any random reason is just too strong for cops and pols to resist.
One particularly problematic area for police and regulators created by legal pot will be defining what constitutes intoxication, especially in relation to allegations of driving under the influence. The current rules on alcohol will be used as a model and therein lies the problem. The contention that an alcohol level of 0.08 constitutes proof of intoxication is entirely arbitrary and not supported by any high quality evidence, despite a good understanding of alcohol metabolism. Different people with different drinking habits react quite differently to the same amount of alcohol in their system. Some may be drunk at 0.04, while others are fine and entirely functional at 0.1 or higher. But the authorities have convinced almost everybody that there is some scientific basis for the legally-defined permissible level of alcohol in the blood of drivers. Now the same politicians who, in their infinite wisdom, have replaced objective assessment of impairment with a nonsense number as a test of sobriety, will decide on some arbitrary level of THC detectable in the blood that will prove a driver is not safe behind the wheel, even though the significance of such blood levels is even less clear than are alcohol levels because of the very different way in which cannabis products are metabolized. Safe drivers who smoked a bone the night before will now run the risk of fines and imprisonment because they crossed the path of some irritable uniformed thug when they were on the road to work some morning.
Kids Eat the Darnedest Things
Predictably, part of the rationale for state regulation of cannabis is the supposed need to protect children from either intentional or inadvertent use of this “adult” substance. The newspapers have been eager to carry stories about kids getting into their parents’ stash and ending up in the hospital, despite the fact that the same thing can, and does, easily happen with other, legal, drugs like alcohol and therapeutic medications. Brownies and other tasty edibles come in for special criticism in this regard, and special government rules regulate their potency, while flavorful alcohol drinks like Bailey’s are respectable beverages which are advertised in magazines and freely available.
Not surprisingly, for purposes of demonizing drug use, the definition of adult becomes fluid. When a 19-year-old joins the death machine and goes off to kill for their country on command, they are seen as full-fledged adults, capable of making their own decisions; but in the case of the recent death of someone of the same age who killed himself after eating a brownie, the newspapers described him as a “teen.” Supposed concern for the kids is a recurrent theme when the powers-that-be want to control us, but their real agenda is to portray drugs as dangerous and their users as unreliable pleasure-seekers who would put children at risk to satisfy their own cravings.
The Wider War
Although legal cannabis is gaining ground in the united states and other countries, the war against other recreational drugs continues at full bore here and around the world, leaving discussion of legalizing, decriminalizing, or simply ignoring other pleasurable chemicals such as amphetamines, cocaine and heroin (except for use in state-approved medical treatment) is still largely taboo. In fact, the campaign against opiates in particular appears to be gearing up in this country. A recent CDC report (in MMWR July 7, 2015), eagerly parroted about by the servile news media, describes an increase in opiate overdoses as an epidemic, recycling a misnomer that has been circulating for years in drug warrior circles. Such inflammatory language makes it much harder to have a reasoned discussion about the scope of the alleged problem and its causes and possible solutions.
While cops and courts in the united states eagerly arrest and imprison dealers in coke, meth, and unprescribed opiates, the authorities in a number of other countries continue to kill people for selling or transporting these substances. But although the american government opts not to execute dealers in pleasurable substances, its prisons are filled to overflowing with folks who are being punished for peacefully providing desired drugs to willing customers. The reason the drug warriors can get away with this is that they have convinced so many of two things which are taken without question as god’s truth but which are both entirely false.
The first such myth about banned drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy or meth is that they are by nature dangerous to those who use them. There is no convincing evidence to back up this claim but belief that it is true is so widespread that the lie is repeated over and over unquestioningly and those of us who challenge this assumption are dismissed as deluded libertines. Of course heroin or any other recreational drug can be dangerous, if not deadly, if used in unwise ways or excessive quantities, but illegal drugs do not have a monopoly on this property. Exponentially more people do serious damage to their bodies with alcohol and tobacco than with heroin or coke. But both of those substances are legal. Not only that, but in a number of states there has been a recent increase in “overdoses” among heroin users because the drug is being cut with fentanyl—which is completely legal, although its use is restricted by the inane prescription drug laws. Even here, where the legal drug is actually the more dangerous one, heroin gets the headlines and the bad rap.
Perhaps the height of hypocrisy is the double standard the united states applies in its handling of growers of (medically useful) intoxicants like poppies and coca versus those who produce the far more toxic tobacco. American military and police agencies and their hired helpers in private companies participate in efforts to eradicate coca plants in south america and poppies in afghanistan by spraying herbicides and hacking down and burning plants which are being grown largely by poor farmers just trying to make a living. These programs, besides further impoverishing the would-be producers have had detrimental effects on local environments by promoting the erosion of now denuded plots of land or contaminating the land with toxic chemicals. In conjunction with such destructive practices, they have also employed the softer approach of subsidizing legal crops, but most of these efforts have proved unsuccessful—growing coca and poppies is still way more profitable than farming other crops as a result of the war on drugs these authoritarian fools started in the first place. Contrast this with the fact that for many years the united states government funneled extorted tax money to tobacco growers to support production of this carcinogenic toxin, which is still legal and freely available (as it should be). According to the CDC, less than 1% of all deaths in the united states are attributable to heroin use. 16 times as many people die in accidents, and 17 times as many die of lung cancer caused by smoking tobacco. But there is no talk of locking people up for driving cars or smoking cigarettes, while people are imprisoned—if not killed—daily for their non-violent role in some aspect of the illegal drug trade.
One could argue that this picture would change with legalization since there would be more users, and thus more deaths. That may be true, but it is also likely that an aboveground market and tolerance of drug use by one’s peers would change the way these drugs are used, with less injection and more consumption by safer routes, as well as less concentrated products. A look back at alcohol prohibition supports this line of thought. When alcohol prohibition was in force consumption of spirits instead of beer or wine increased, because it was easier to transport and market alcohol in more concentrated forms. A similar phenomenon happened in the cocaine trade in this country, where crack became more popular than powder cocaine in some areas for the same reason that whisky outcompeted beer in speakeasies. Smoking of opium, much safer than injection for a variety of reasons, was the preferred method of consuming the products of the poppy in the united states before the government started its campaign against it. Once opium was driven underground, the dealers and users turned to morphine, and then heroin (originally marketed as a “treatment” for morphine “addiction”) since these products packed more bang for the buck, just as whisky and crack do.
Whose mind is it anyway?
The second, and more problematic, myth about recreational drugs is that they are addictive. Believers in addiction claim that certain substances consumed are so pleasurable that some people will be unable to resist the temptation to snort, inject or swallow them over and over. The shrinks, therapists and social workers claim that these folks are no longer truly in control of their drug-taking, that they are subject to some irresistible compulsion to use drugs no matter the harm caused to themselves and those around them. While I would be the first to acknowledge that some drugs are very pleasurable to the user, the believers in addiction fail to answer a crucial question: if the consumer of opiates, marijuana, or crack is not in control of their actions, who or what exactly is?
They cannot provide a reasonable answer to this question because, unless one believes in demonic possession or mind control, only the user could be making the choice to take or not take a drug. People are not “powerless over their addiction” as AA would have it. If this were true, no one who habitually smokes, drinks, or injects more than those around them think they should would ever stop. But they do. In the millions. People began to quit smoking tobacco in large numbers back in the 60s, long before there were nicotine patches and quit lines. They stopped because they wanted to, whether for health or economic reasons. Just as drinkers and druggers stop using their preferred intoxicants daily without pharmaceutical aid, without therapy, and without those asinine 12-step programs. Believers in addiction claim that people who stop their habit unassisted were never true addicts, but they are unable to prove any physical difference between those who do and those who “can’t” stop using. The fact that some choose to pursue physical or psychic pleasure despite the harms it causes them does not prove they are out of control or mentally ill—it simply shows that they value some pleasures more than those with more moderate tastes do. While it could be argued that habitually engaging in harmful or dangerous activity is unwise, it is not a sign of disease or compulsion.
Fueled by a puritanical bias against physical pleasure and pseudoscientific theories of addiction, the drug war rages on. Governments institute laws to prohibit the use, transportation, and sale of drugs. They then send out their armed thugs, both police and military, to enforce these wrong-headed regulations. And, as in any war, there is collateral damage—the term warmongers use to describe the death and suffering imposed on peaceable, uninvolved people by those conducting the hostilities. Whether it is the impoverished families of imprisoned drug traders, people killed by competing dealers in the illegal trade, or kids born with infections their parent acquired from using drugs in more risky ways, uninvolved people are harmed in this war as surely as are the non-combatants being killed by united states drones in iraq and afghanistan or american-supported saudi bombs in yemen.
People’s already limited freedoms are daily threatened by government interventions to interfere with consumption of prohibited drugs. People’s homes, cars, and cash can be confiscated by cops without trial and without practical recourse. Trade on the internet in restricted with hysterical stories about the dark internet and Silk Road and the evil connections of Bitcoin. People must submit to being searched by the wannabe cops of TSA and sniffed by canine agents of the state in order to travel on planes and trains. Cops use the drug war as an excuse to stop and search peaceable people walking down public streets or driving on government-owned roads.
Then there are the users themselves. Whether or not one approves of the use of recreational drugs, they have been consumed for thousands of years and no efforts at prohibition by either church or state have been successful in eradicating their use. Obviously, there are loyal subjects who avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs out of fear or subservience to the authorities, but there are always some who will pursue pharmacologic pleasure despite the risks imposed by their masters. However, in their efforts to circumvent the law they often engage in potentially more dangerous modes of getting high than they otherwise might.
It is not just that people might inject instead of smoke, smoke instead of snort, drink whisky instead of wine, as I talked about earlier. They all too often end up sharing needles, using products containing unexpected additives, or turning to cheaper and/or quasi-legal synthetic drugs that may be stronger, but can also be more toxic, than their agricultural cousins. Sharing needles can result in the user getting infected with HIV or hepatitis viruses. Users of heroin can never be sure exactly what they are getting and can “overdose,” not on the heroin but on what it is cut with. And if the newspaper reports are to be believed (which is an open question) folks who use Spice or bath salts or other temporarily legal highs can have serious adverse reactions, including delirium and seizures.
But the news reporters who tell us about the lives devastated by drug use never discuss the primary reason drug use takes the toll it does on the users. They don’t tell their readers, listeners, or viewers that free access to needles can eliminate the transmission of infection during injection drug use. They don’t explain how heroin or cocaine, like pharmaceutical narcotics or beer, could be safe substances, with all ingredients and the concentration of the psychoactive substance printed right on the labels, if they were not driven into an underground, illegal market. And consumers of the news are never informed that cheap aboveground marijuana, ecstasy, or amphetamines, drugs with known and predictable side effects would be much safer than the newer chemical alternatives that folks now resort to because the cops drive them away from less toxic, better understood alternatives.
A Royal Pain
While the restrictions on all of our freedoms and the harm to users and their families are reason enough to demand the government end its war on drugs, perhaps the most tragic collateral damage of all is that done to ill people who are allowed to suffer in pain because the state and its enforcement arm, the DEA, have terrorized so many medical providers into undermedicating their patients. And we should expect to see this problem get worse in light of the CDC report referenced above. These government “scientists” intentionally use the most provocative language, talking about social phenomena as if they were diseases and defining the mere consumption of an unauthorized drug as abuse. They blame an increase in heroin use on “inappropriate” prescribing of opiate pain-killers and call for even more restrictions on access to such medications for people in pain. All of this makes medical practitioners wary of prescribing opiates and promises to increase the suffering of people in pain.
I am well aware that there are doctors who prescribe pain medications with the full knowledge that they are supplying legal opiates for essentially recreational purposes. Although this would be condemned by the authorities, this is in fact in no less ethical that a wine merchant selling beverages to drinkers. To each their own. The problem is that since it is public knowledge that not all prescriptions for opiates are in fact written for people in pain, and most people believe the hype about addiction, every prescription becomes suspect. There are limits on numbers of pills that can be dispensed. Special prescription paper must be used. Doctors and nurse practitioners cannot authorize these medications electronically or by telephone. Pharmacists must keep very stringent records and share their information with centralized databases. Every provider who prescribes an opiate and every patient who asks for a dose of morphine or fills a prescription for oxycontin risks being viewed as a pusher or a junkie.
The problem becomes most serious for those with chronic pain, particularly cancer-related pain. As people become tolerant—not addicted—to opiates they commonly need to increase their dose from time to time. They then can get pushback from the doctors and nurses who care for them, leading them to seek help form other providers, which then leads to them getting labeled as drug-seekers. While there are many, many courageous physicians and other prescribers, especially in oncology, palliative care, and the specialty pain practices, who help patients manage their pain well and safely with opiates, they are burdened with substantial paperwork and documentation requirements to protect both themselves and their patients from the thuggish DEA and various regulatory bodies. Which leads other practitioners to take the easy way out and prescribe minimal, often inadequate, doses of painkillers in order to keep the microscope of the feds off of them.
Hospitals have taken aggressive approaches to controlling how opiates can be prescribed and administered in their facilities, leading many docs to take the path of least resistance and prescribe inadequate does of pain medicines via the wrong route, while nurses undertreat chronic pain because they fear retaliation for violating hospital policies which they often simply misinterpret. The government prevents research into the use of heroin for pain control, despite the evidence of the efficacy and safety of its use in this fashion and severely restricts research into the therapeutic effects of marijuana for pain and other medical conditions. All of which leaves people suffering in pain unnecessarily out of fear that someone may not really be in pain and thus may either intentionally get high or unintentionally injure themselves.
Stop the War
Whatever one’s feelings about drug use, the war against drugs is really a war against people: people who use drugs to get high, people who need drugs to treat their pain, people who sell or transport these substances without official sanction, and the loved ones of all of these victims of the drug war. Prohibition leads to the killing of uninvolved bystanders either by cops or cop-like drug capitalists; crazy long prison sentences or death for workers in the drug trade; users getting infected with life-threatening microbes; the production of new, synthetic and arguably more dangerous substances created to circumvent prohibitive laws. And in the end it does not stop people from using intoxicants if that is what they really want to do. It just makes it dangerous for them, and leads to restrictions on the freedom of everyone, whether they use drugs or not.
Legalization is not the answer. Decriminalization and deregulation are. People should be free to ingest, inject or swallow whatever the fuck they want to. Free commerce in and use of opiates, cocaine, marijuana, whatever, will bring the trade into the open. In such a marketplace people will then be able to easily compare products and samples can be analyzed for ingredients and strength by independent consumer groups. Costs will be driven down both by competition and the elimination of the need for farmers, processors and dealers to take risky and expensive measures to avoid cops and feds. And folks would be more likely to use the newly cheap and easily available older and well-researched drugs that are effective in providing the high people wish to have but are often less toxic than newer versions created to circumvent the long arm of the law.
And we shouldn’t stop with eliminating laws that criminalize heroin and ecstasy. We need to eliminate the entire prescription system where government-certified medical providers control access to morphine and percocet, as well as thousands of other medicines. This would liberate people in pain from the tyranny of the DEA and ignorant doctors who would deny them relief. Drugs are drugs, whether legal or not, and we shouldn’t be required to get a note from the government or our priest or our medial consultant before we are allowed to take care of ourselves.
Freedom is risky for all, and scary for many. But so are authority and government, both of which are way scarier than any sort of free society could possibly be. While some risks, like harm from inappropriate use of opiates may increase with deregulation, others, like the risk of infection from shared needles or harm from additives to heroin will decrease. If folks don’t feel comfortable deciding for themselves how many pain pills to take, there would be nothing preventing them from calling a physician or other healer for advice. If parents are worried about kids eating hash brownies they should either secure them better or be more diligent in watching what their kids put in their mouths, since marijuana is not the only toxin they could consume. And if people think that free trade in drugs will be the end of the world they need only consider the experience with alcohol over the thousands of years during which it was minimally regulated by government: while drinking has been a factor in lots of bad events, it has far more often been a source of pleasure, a medical anesthetic, a social and sexual lubricant, and a comfort (or bandaid) during troubled times.
Primum Non Nocere?
There are no bad drugs or good drugs, although any drug can be used in ways that can cause harm. Opiates can ease pain but can also stop someone from breathing; cocaine can both stop a life-threatening hemorrhage and cause the erosion of someone’s nasal septum. But such a combination of benefits and risks is not exclusive to drugs. There is an endless list of other things, from cars to guns to fireplaces to medical or surgical procedures, which can hurt people, but are accepted as part of everyday life. To live free, we must be willing to take chances and not live in fear of what might go wrong. And we cannot be free unless and until we are at liberty to do whatever we want with our own bodies without the supervision or control of cops, doctors, politicians or ministers.