Strategies for anti-prohibitionists, pt. 1: The neo-Puritans

People advocating the legalization of some or all drugs are really fighting more than one kind of opponent. Clarifying this may help with strategy. Some audiences need one line of reasoning, and some need another.

Before we dive in, there is one very, very important point to get out of the way: drugs are everywhere. Everywhere. People even become addicted to drugs inside federal prisons. I’m sure that drugs would be more prevalent without prohibition, but this would not mean cities would have to start dealing with drug problems that previously had not.

Another more obligatory point is that drug abuse is a bad thing, and we’d all like to see less of it. I’m not advocating people waste their lives, health, and financial resources away. Aside from the fact that this already happens, I believe that it would happen less under a legal drug system. This is an empirical point about which I could turn out to be wrong, but I think those odds are pretty slim.

So who are these different categories of prohibitionist? The first is the neo-Puritans. Many people feel that drug use is a moral evil that the state is obligated to oppose, no matter how badly the effort goes. I would guess that the vast majority of these are Christians, but the two groups are not identical.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the way that Jesus was supposed to have revealed his powers, and thereby his identity as the Messiah, was turning water into wine. Clearly the consumption of alcohol is not strictly forbidden by the Christian faith.

You might object: we’re talking about different substances here. Jesus did not turn water into heroin. And you’re right about that. But the point is that some amount of pleasant intoxication, even if small, is sanctioned in the Gospel of John. Again: intoxication is not categorically bad, at least according to John’s version of Jesus.

There are others who hold a similar position to the one just mentioned, only without the Christian basis. They’re a much smaller group and ultimately I think even their positions usually derive from the Christian one, so duking it out with them is probably not necessary. If it becomes necessary in ten or twenty years I’ll revisit this paragraph.

Alcohol and other intoxicants are different in degree, not in kind. Other people are aware of this fact. Many people who oppose drug use also oppose alcohol use, and it seems that the only reason they don’t push for prohibition of alcohol is that the US already tried that and gave it up. It’s a dead issue. So instead they hold the line where it is now, even though this is not a philosophically consistent position.

Part of the neo-Puritan view is that all use is abuse, that there is simply no way to use some drugs responsibly. Once the mystic patina is taken away from intoxicating substances, this too seems ridiculous. Clearly a glass of wine does not make one a raging alcoholic who abuses his family. Many prominent politicians sheepishly admit (or otherwise let on) to having used marijuana or cocaine or both in their youth, and yet there they are in high positions anyway. Some of them are even abusers of alcohol, such as the late Charlie Wilson. While this certainly harmed him in the long run nobody could deny he got pretty far in life as an alcoholic.

What is the strategy with this group? Delegitimizing their argument using more sophisticated expositions of what I’ve written above. There are too many true believers out there to convince them all, but around this core is a much larger group of people who accept the argument but could be convinced otherwise. The core group has so much influence because the outer group follows them, but deprived of this outer group they would become much less powerful.

There’s another way to delegitimize that position as well: even if something is categorically bad it does not necessarily follow that the state needs to prohibit it and try to enforce this prohibition. In questions of morality, if you’re not able to do wrong you earn no credit by doing right. In questions of living in the real world, you need to evaluate policies at least partially in terms of consequences. The consequences in this case are a rapid erosion of the very rights and freedoms that made America so iconic in the first place, a legal system that imprisons people at more than the rates of Russia and China put together, leading to further degradation of the economic and social culture, and, oh yeah, widespread availability of drugs anyway. There’s no shame in admitting that prohibition failed once and it is failing again. In fact, there’s only shame in refusing to admit it.

You might say that there are better arguments to use against them. I don’t doubt that. I’m only pointing out the arguments that seem to me to address their objections with the most bang for the buck. And only taking the arguments as far as needed to change the political landscape, not to convert everybody over to my position. There is almost a critical mass of legalization advocates, and all that is needed to win in the ten-to-twenty year term is a little more mass and ever so slightly less resistance to that mass.

Part 2 will continue this discussion by looking at another group.

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One thought on “Strategies for anti-prohibitionists, pt. 1: The neo-Puritans

  1. Pingback: “Doing” vs. “taking” drugs, with policy implications | Randall F. McElroy iii

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