Alright, libertarians, you wanted drug legalization, right? Well, with opioids, via loose prescriptions, you got it, and what’s happened? We are in the middle of the worst epidemic of overdose and addiction this country has ever seen, thousands are dropping like flies, and it appears that things will be getting worse before they get better. Your theories might sound nice when you don’t have skin in the game, but when reality intrudes on your fantasies of a free society, real people pay the price. Right?
Well, not quite.
The above argument might sound familiar because a variation of it is trotted out during every national crisis. Be it war, financial instability, poverty, during health insurance debates, or any other crisis or threat, a chorus rises to blame supporters of a free society for their juvenile dogmatism that is surely causing the very predicament everyone is suffering under.
“There are no libertarians in financial crises,” gloated mainstream financial analysts during the subprime meltdown, which was caused by “free market fundamentalists”, according to George Soros.
The opioid crisis is no different, but one would have thought the fingers would have pointed at libertarians far earlier. This may be partially due to the fact that support for ending the Drug War occupies a strange grey area between Left and Right. More traditional, law-and-order type conservatives generally support the War on Drugs, as well as the tough-on-crime tactics used to prosecute it, while the Left tends to support ending the Drug War due to its violation of civil liberties.
This has always seemed strange to me since conservatives tend to support more freedom as opposed to less, smaller government as opposed to big, and the Left tends to always and everywhere support greater restriction of liberty for the ostensible benefit of, well, someone, somewhere, and a large, intrusive government to do it. But, during a crisis, regardless of Left or Right, voices will denounce liberty in favor of something more “responsible”. “We don’t have the luxury of being libertarians right now”, say the condescending, adult voices of reason and responsibility.
And so it is with Jonah Goldberg at National Review, who recently authored a piece against the libertarian argument for full drug legalization, essentially stating that an opioid-addicted dystopia would be the inevitable future of a libertarian society, with heroin sold on the shelf right next to Johnny Walker, loaves of bread, and the morning paper.
In Goldberg’s piece, “The Opioid Crisis Should Make Libertarians Rethink the Drug Legalization Argument”, he sees the opioid crisis as an experiment in drug legalization. He then looks at the outcome, mass overdose deaths, then finger wags libertarians for their blind devotion to ideology.
David French had a similar take on the crisis in a piece back in April, “The Opioid Crisis Should Kill the Call to Legalize Hard Drugs”. He sees an opioid crisis and blames “drug libertarianism”.
Forgive me, but the libertarian argument for full legalization is a bit more nuanced than that.
Libertarians understand full well the dangers that hard drugs pose for society at large, but this is the very reason for their support for full legalization. Far from wanting anyone and their children to get their hands on heroin, they understand that drug prohibition itself has been the cause of the widespread use of these hard drugs.
Richard Cowen’s 1986 article, “How the Narcs Created Crack”, illustrates the “Iron Law of Prohibition”, which essentially states that the harder the crackdown on drugs, the harder the drugs become. There was no national conversation about heroin, meth, or crack-cocaine during the late 70s because there was no epidemic associated with these drugs. It was only once a militarized crackdown on marijuana and cocaine really got underway that black market entrepreneurs developed and sold the economic equivalent of bathtub gin that these hard drugs became a problem.
In my home state of Oklahoma, where meth use is rampant, law enforcement effectively eliminated the mom-and-pop labs that produced meth locally. But meth use still increased, and overdoses increased. What explains this? The Mexican drug cartels moved in, bringing their high potency meth, produced south of the border in super labs, and began supplying the demand. Oklahoma law enforcement unwittingly invited the cartels into this state, and are effectively the chief enforcers of their market share.
There is now a push by the Oklahoma AG to treat opioid manufacturers like organized crime through the use of the RICO law, but it only takes just a little imagination to understand that this would only benefit real organized crime.
The solution to the opioid epidemic isn’t to abandon the philosophy of liberty and opt for a renewed Drug War, but to develop a non-opioid based painkiller and make it widely available to patients and addicts. Cannabis appears to be the chief contender for this role, as it has been shown that addicts can be successfully weaned off their deadly poisons through the use of marijuana. And when given the choice, pain patients overwhelmingly prefer marijuana to opioids. So what’s the hold-up?
Prescribing heroin to those most susceptible to addiction, pain sufferers, should be an idea tossed in the dustbin, but the corollary policy doesn’t lie in the simplistic “let’s fight a war!” mindset. Simple-minded prohibition brought us to this precipice, it cannot bring us out. An amped-up, militarized war on prescription opioids will lead to an unprecedented plague of black market heroin, laced with fentanyl, elephant tranquilizers, and God knows what else.
The situation, then, will truly be out of control. The Cartel presence in the U.S. will become massive, and ubiquitous, as black market heroin profits will soar, corrupting law enforcement, the political class, and everyone standing to cash in. The United States will then truly become a Narco State.
Periods of national crisis are the true test of defenders of liberty and are the very times to defend the philosophy of liberty most vigorously, because it’s this philosophy that will lead the way out.