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Legalizing Dope: A Life-Threatening Idea

July 24, 1988|David Glidden | David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside.

RIVERSIDE — The American way with drugs makes some habit-forming substances legal and others not. Those who would organize society tend toward one extreme or another: to ban tobacco along with marijuana, for example, or else to legalize them both. A choice between health and freedom.

All Americans want healthy, happy lives. We remove asbestos from our buildings, heavy metals from our water. But we also want to do our thing , to be free to live the lives we choose. Some smoke tobacco. Nearly everyone drinks coffee. Liquor is a drug of choice. The freedom to indulge seems part and parcel of our history. Users of more exotic drugs demand freedom too, wanting to expand on the smoker's and the drinker's bill of rights.

Yet suppose indulgence causes damage to health, even with every beer or with every puff? A healthy life conflicts with a free-wheeling one. One person's freedom can be another person's disease. And one person's freedom can cause another person's death. Since it is hard to justify doing damage to health, some medically minded people would outlaw all such addictive substances, depriving drinkers as well as dope abusers.

Do-gooders sound authoritarian while indulgers seem foolhardy.

It would be convenient to be able to decide for either health or freedom. And since it's not American to force people to be good, the winner could be freedom--to indulge. The trouble is that it won't work; once a person loses health, that person loses freedom, too.

The sense of freedom hearkens back to days of ignorance, when the soul was said to be impervious to toxics and addiction was a willful, sinful habit, an indulgence of the body by an independent mind. Yet, today's knowledge of the biochemistry of the brain explains how reason becomes captive to predilection. Now that we know more about brain chemistry, we require a new conception of free choice. And it must evolve. The law can't provide it for us.

Society could, of course, ignore the health or freedom issue and turn aseptically to money matters and supply-side economics. As the legalizers say, if sufficient dope is intercepted from exporting countries, the price of drugs will rise and so will crime and violence, as addicts steal more to pay for their habits. If drugs were instead made legal and thereby more abundant, addicts wouldn't have to steal or, in the process, hurt others. The criminal element would find no profit in addictions and turn to other business ventures, such as carpet cleaning. And as the revenue increased from legal sales, the country could afford a Strategic Defense Initiative or housing for the homeless, not to mention paying off the national debt.

Yet there is a population of unemployables and illiterates whose only way to make a living is by crime. This group wouldn't change if crack were legalized. Nor would the habits of all too many citizens change, those people who are happy to buy stolen merchandise at rock-bottom bargain prices. If gang members had no drugs to sell, they could always turn to simple theft.

Legalizing street drugs amounts to trading lives for property--letting people kill themselves while protecting things. That's a fact legalizers gloss over by moralizing about freedom. It's a myth that habituated users of behavior-altering addictive drugs can live healthy, happy lives once the law gets off their backs. It didn't work for alcoholics. Legalizing drugs would give addicted users the easy opportunity to indulge until they die. Addicts are not sinners who deserve their self-destruction; they are brain-diseased.

Yes, it is puzzling when government proscribes some addictive drugs and goes to extremes sanctioning others--doling out tobacco subsidies, for instance. There is no coherent strategy against chemical dependency. And there cannot be as long as most of us are already users. The drug problem is not imposed upon Americans by foreign exporters and purveyors. The enemy is within our way of life; that is why it is so hard to detoxify America. Passing laws or else suspending them will not make us over.

The current social outcry against smokers is worth attending to, although it seems exaggerated. Compared with alcohol and cocaine, using nicotine does less harm to others than to its users. Yet the harassing of smokers does suggest a strategy. We cede to smokers their right to smoke, in places where we don't have to breathe what they exhale. And the time it takes for smokers to suffer from disease may give them time enough to change. Yet the country cannot be as tolerant toward crack users, heroin abusers and alcoholics, since these self-destructive habits also often stimulate criminal behavior, from drive-by shooting to drunk driving.

Criminals whose behavior is affected by these drugs can be insulated from the rest of society; they deserve it more than smokers.

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