Michael Gerson displays his ignorance of drugs and the drug war

By Alan Bean

Michael Gerson doesn’t like Ron Paul for all the wrong reasons.  George W. Bush’s ex-speech writer is appalled that a presidential candidate who advocates the legalization of heroin expects to be taken seriously.  Me?  I am appalled that a man who doesn’t grasp the futility of the war on drugs can be taken seriously as an authority on the subject.  Has he not been following the debate?  Apparently not.

Gerson’s larger point is that Ron Paul’s radical individualism ignores and discounts the communal side of life: tradition, family, religion and a concern for the common good.  Point taken.  But when Paul talks about the drug war (or any other kind of war, for that matter) he makes a great deal of sense.

Gerson, like most Americans, believes that heroin should be banned because it destroys thousands of American lives.  This assumes that people in the grips of intense psychic pain will shun narcotic drugs simply because they are illegal.   According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, .1% of Americans 12 or older use heroin in any given year–that’s about 130,000 people.  Some of these people just shoot up now and then for kicks.  Others are able to function relatively well with a low-level addiction.  Not every user becomes a hopeless addict. 

By contrast, over 100 million Americans have used marijuana at some point.  Since the two drugs are equally illegal, why does Gerson focus on heroin?  First, he knows that marijuana, by virtually every measure, is less harmful than alcohol (which his audience consumes in copious quantities).   Secondly, he knows that support for marijuana legalization is growing rapidly, so he emphasizes a drug that still inspires fear and loathing.

Is heroin a dangerous drug?  If you buy it on the street it certainly is; but it’s the impurities that do most of the damage.  If the drug was legal, a great deal of damage would be avoided.  Should people use heroin to take the edge off mental pain?  No, it’s a bad and counterproductive idea.  Unfortunately, making the drug illegal does little to discourage use while insuring that we have no control over the purity of the drug, no control over dosage, and no way to encourage addicts to use clean needles.    Every experiment with safe injection sites shows that the harms typically associated with heroin injection can be reduced to the vanishing point if the drug is pure, dosage is monitored and clean needles are used.

But here’s Gerson’s real problem (and mine, to be honest): if we make pure heroin and clean needles available to junkies, and if we monitor dosage levels, aren’t we condoning a dangerous practice?  Wouldn’t it be better if people simply said no?

Of course it would, but what is the goal here?  Are we trying to reduce the harms associated with the human proclivity for self-medication, or are we trying to uphold high social standards?  Gerson wants to have it both ways, but he can’t, and we can’t either. 

The war on drugs has done nothing to keep drugs off the streets and every narcotics officer in America knows it.  We have simply assured that drug use will take place under the most unhygenic and potentially lethal circumstances imaginable.  When a friend suffers an overdose, most users won’t call the police for fear of being tagged with a felony.  The poor people Michael Gerson claims to care so much about are lured into dealing drugs precisely because they are illegal.  Mexican drug lords are at war with their government (and one another) because drug prohibition jacks up the market price of the product they are selling.  Legalize and control the drug trade and street-level profits would disappear instantly.

The only downside is that America would have to get real about human pain and weakness.  People use and sell drugs because they honestly believe they have no meaningful alternative.  We need to show they they’re wrong by providing decent jobs for out most at-risk citizens.  Only then will churches, social workers and government bureaucrats be able to engage meaningfully with America’s drug problem.

Ron Paul’s land of second-rate values

By Michael Gerson, Published: May 9

Before last week’s South Carolina Republican debate, Ron Paul supporters complained that their candidate was not getting the first-tier attention his polling and fundraising should bring. It is true that Paul has often been overlooked and dismissed, as one might treat a slightly dotty uncle. But perhaps some first-tier scrutiny is deserved.

Paul was the only candidate at the debate to make news, calling for the repeal of laws against prostitution, cocaine and heroin. The freedom to use drugs, he argued, is equivalent to the freedom of people to “practice their religion and say their prayers.” Liberty must be defended “across the board.” “It is amazing that we want freedom to pick our future in a spiritual way,” he said, “but not when it comes to our personal habits.”

This argument is strangely framed: If you tolerate Zoroastrianism, you must be able to buy heroin at the quickie mart. But it is an authentic application of libertarianism, which reduces the whole of political philosophy to a single slogan: Do what you will — pray or inject or turn a trick — as long as no one else gets hurt.

Even by this permissive standard, drug legalization fails. The de facto decriminalization of drugs in some neighborhoods — say, in Washington, D.C. — has encouraged widespread addiction. Children, freed from the care of their addicted parents, have the liberty to play in parks decorated by used needles. Addicts are liberated into lives of prostitution and homelessness. Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their “personal habits.”

But Paul had an answer to this criticism. “How many people here would use heroin if it were legal? I bet nobody would,” he said to applause and laughter. Paul was claiming that good people — people like the Republicans in the room — would not abuse their freedom, unlike those others who don’t deserve our sympathy.

The problem, of course, is that even people in the room may have sons or daughters who have struggled with addiction. Or maybe even have personal experience with the freedom that comes from alcohol and drug abuse. One imagines they did not laugh or cheer.

Libertarians often cover their views with a powdered wig of 18th- and 19th-century philosophy. They cite Locke, Smith and Mill as advocates of a peaceable kingdom — a utopia of cooperation and spontaneous order. But the reality of libertarianism was on display in South Carolina. Paul concluded his answer by doing a jeering rendition of an addict’s voice: “Oh yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don’t want to use heroin, so I need these laws.” Paul is not content to condemn a portion of his fellow citizens to self-destruction; he must mock them in their decline. Such are the manners found in Paulsville.

This is not “The Wealth of Nations” or the “Second Treatise of Government.” It is Social Darwinism. It is the arrogance of the strong. It is contempt for the vulnerable and suffering.

The conservative alternative to libertarianism is necessarily more complex. It is the teaching of classical political philosophy and the Jewish and Christian traditions that true liberty must be appropriate to human nature. The freedom to enslave oneself with drugs is the freedom of the fish to live on land or the freedom of birds to inhabit the ocean — which is to say, it is not freedom at all. Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries. They are cultivated in institutions — families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods. And government has a limited but important role in reinforcing social norms and expectations — including laws against drugs and against the exploitation of men and women in the sex trade.

It was just 12 years ago — though it seems like a political lifetime — that a Republican presidential candidate visited a rural drug treatment center outside Des Moines. Moved by the stories of recovering young addicts, Texas Gov. George W. Bush talked of his own struggles with alcohol. “I’m on a walk. And it’s a never-ending walk as far as I’m concerned. . . . I want you to know that your life’s walk is shared by a lot of other people, even some who wear suits.”

In determining who is a “major” candidate for president, let’s begin here. Those who support the legalization of heroin while mocking addicts are marginal. It is difficult to be a first-tier candidate while holding second-rate values.

2 thoughts on “Michael Gerson displays his ignorance of drugs and the drug war

  1. I am an alcoholic. I’ll also abuse most medications that make me feel good; since I’ve been in recovery I’ve tried with my doctors to stay away from those, and I haven’t even smoked cannabis since before I got pregnant in 1981. Mr. Gerson has no idea what he is talking about. Legality or illegality of doing something like ingesting, inhaling, or injecting a substance (or what you need to do in order to get it) has no impact on a person who has lost or is putting at risk her life, her career/professional standing, family, and the welfare of her children to carry on with her addiction “this time I do it”.
    Addiction is a medical, sociological, and spiritual disorder. It’s a disease like any other chronic disease that has effects on the family and community as well as the patient, and all three can be destroyed, or strengthened in dealing with it. Not all use of recreational drugs is drug addiction; not all is illegal. Tobacco and alcohol are legal and very harmful, caffeine is legal and mostly unregulated but controlled by social custom, other substance abuse like use of inhalants is harmful, confined usually to marginal groups, and uncontrolled.
    Using criminal law to attempt to control drug addiction does not work, and the evidence is clear when we observe the results of the “War on Drugs”. Pressure on producers and suppliers only produces misery in countries like Colombia and Mexico, and war zones in the US where enforcement is concentrated on low-income drug users. Supply-side interdiction can only be spotty, given the volume of imports, and the finite number of inspectors. Seizures grow and grow in size, and enforcement pressure only gives gangsters a price support for their goods–addicts will pay whatever the price. Increasingly expensive enforcement, which only increases drug related violence, per this meta study:
    http://uhri.cfenet.ubc.ca/images/Documents/violence-eng.pdf
    along with the expense of larger prisons for the more numerous criminals with longer sentences puts one large country at a particular financial disadvantage. When Michael Gerson says that D.C. neighbourhoods are the model for defacto decriminalization of posession of small amounts of illicit drugs, I strongly disagree–I would invite him to Vancouver, Canada, my hometown. The police department does not pay any attention to marijuana for personal use, if it gets to 3 or 4 oz. they would confiscate it. There is no policy to prosecute people for possession of other drugs, either. I live about 5 miles from the Downtown Eastside, where there is a lot of injection drug use, and where the InSite clinic, which has a safe injection site, is. They don’t provide drugs, but they do provide syringes, needles, saline, and alcohol pads. There are nurses and staff there in case anyone overdoses or has other medical problems, and there is rehab upstairs, as well as safe people that addicts can trust for advice about community services, HIV and other disease prevention, etc.
    Although possession and use of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, cannabis, and the whole list of other prohibited drugs are illegal in Canada as they are in the US, police departments in Canada see their duty to serve the people by staying in communication with citizens by not investigating petty crimes of drug use and simple posession. It would be very difficult to keep the streets safe in the Downtown Eastside if there weren’t 2 Constables on foot during the day and in a car at night who everyone was comfortable talking to (prostitution laws in Canada are complicated, but rarely enforced at subsistence/street level). Discarded syringes/needles are less of a problem when needle exchange vans are available to swap new for used, but this is a problem. When good residential treatment is available for everyone when they ask for it, and you have used the taxes on alcohol and tobacco for amelioration of the problems they cause on society, and when you legalize and tax marijuana and use that to prevent and treat drug abuse, THEN start punishing people–but don’t start with the poorest and sickest people, start with the people making millions: the drug cartels’ millionaires, and the arms corporations’ billionaires, and all the military and tactical consultants, because they are making money off addicts too–those children, and sisters and brothers of people paying taxes to put people in jail instead of working on solving the problem, or at least not making it worse.

  2. I meant to say prosecutions for possession of drugs in amounts for personal use are very rare. Seizures of large amounts of drugs and vigourous investigations take place, but relatively short sentences seem to have the same reformative effect as the US system.

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