Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. What is the Problem with Illegal Drugs?

 

shutterstock_154594889My father was a cocaine addict who died of an overdose. He began using when I was about eight, and died when I was 24. He tried to quit a couple of times — twice he went into treatment centers — but he was not successful.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the problem of illegal and addictive drugs but have avoided drug-related threads because they’ve just been too painful to read. When I was younger and still considered myself a libertarian, I was very sympathetic to legalizing drugs. The “War on Drugs” is extremely expensive and its success is debatable. At this point, I’m just not sure which way is best. (For whatever it’s worth, according to this ngram, the phrase “war on drugs” didn’t become widely used until after 1980. Thanks to Mike H for that interesting link.)

Though — as I said — I haven’t followed all the arguments as closely as I should have, I think there’s a “supply and demand” aspect to illegal drug use that gets overlooked, mostly because both sides focus so much on the “supply-side” arguments, aruging either in favor of continuing or removing restrictions on the amount of drugs.

Is that the best way to look at the problem? In one sense, the cycle begins from the supply side: drugs have to be available before people can become addicted to them. But even if that’s where it begins, it must also be fueled and fostered from the demand side. Some people want to use harmful substances, or are compelled through addiction to do so. Suppliers will find a way to meet this demand. If people did not want to use harmful substances — or if they were not compelled by addiction — we would not have our current problems.

Might our energies be better spent if we focused on how to legitimately reduce demand? Keeping harmful substances illegal probably dampens demand, mainly by instilling fear of getting caught in those who might otherwise use the harmful substances. I think we can all agree that it would be good to reduce demand based on the free and willing choice of individuals to refrain from those substances. If we could radically reduce demand for drugs, our problem would be reduced if not solved.

I’m not necessarily looking for a proactive policy suggestion here, but I’m not excluding it either. I’m really just thinking out loud, mainly because if we misdiagnose the problem, our solutions will never be effective and its certain we will always be arguing over them.

I first floated this idea on Majestyk’s thread on the libertarian vision. In response, Midget Faded Rattlesnake asked a great question:

But to what extent is political policy a legitimate and effective tool for helping people to make this choice?

Ryan had this to say:

There are just so many factors contributing to why a person uses harmful drugs, it isn’t a problem with any easy (or even realistic) solution.

He is probably right. Then again, when I accept that there isn’t a realistic solution, I feel very sad.

What do you all think? Has our society misdiagnosed the problem? Is it more a supply-side problem, or one of demand?

There are 93 comments.

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  1. Annefy Member

    I (thankfully) don’t have a lot of experience with this question, but I’m agreeing with Ryan. I think the illegality of drugs keeps a certain percentage of the population from even trying drugs – when I was a teenager (if I remember correctly) it wasn’t a fear of being caught; it was the conclusion that if it was illegal, it was probably stupid. My children would laugh at the naivte of that argument. They’ve been pulled over and hassled too many times for that argument to have much weight.

    Neither the illegality nor the knowledge that it’s bad for you is a deterrent to most committed drug users. I’ve seen more than one success with 12-step programs, but in all cases the person was really, really trying to get off drugs.

    My conclusion is that there’s no hope for all addicts, but with one on one treatment and commitment, there’s hope for some.

    It’s like many problems (homelessness for an example); there’s no comprehensive law change or policy change that will ever make a damn bit of difference.

    Micro works (sometimes). Macro doesn’t (hardly ever).

    If you haven’t already, watch the movie Traffic. But don’t watch Trainspotting. A family friend, who had successfully kicked heroin (he had money in the bank, so I think that’s true) killed himself after seeing it.

    • #1
    • November 21, 2014, at 6:00 PM PST
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  2. Fred Cole Member

    So wait, why is it the government’s job to police what people put in their own bodies?

    • #2
    • November 21, 2014, at 6:26 PM PST
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  3. Fred Cole Member

    Also: Where did Mike H get that link?

    • #3
    • November 21, 2014, at 6:27 PM PST
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  4. Annefy Member

    Fred Cole:So wait, why is it the government’s job to police what people put in their own bodies?

    I didn’t parse every word of the OP, but if that was claimed, I missed it.

    • #4
    • November 21, 2014, at 6:36 PM PST
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  5. Zafar Member

    Parent A (if you prefer us to use this as your name here), I often (usually?) don’t agree with you but as always I appreciate your willingness to share from your own life – I think it adds an important dimension to these discussions – for me it reminds me that even people one disagrees with have honestly gotten feelings and opinions on a subject, and that it behooves one to acknowledge and learn from these.

    Fwiw, of course, I think that

    1. The market for all recreational chemicals is driven by demand, not by supply
    2. All demand is not addiction, which is a separate, serious, issue;
    3. Addiction is driven by deeper factors in an individual’s life – it is not substance specific, addicts switch substances when option one is unavailable; and
    4. Addressing those deeper factors (where possible) is best done by families and communities – I don’t think the Government can do this meaningfully

    [Edited for formatting.]

    • #5
    • November 21, 2014, at 6:53 PM PST
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  6. MarciN Member

    Zafar:Parent A (if you prefer us to use this as your name here), I often (usually?) don’t agree with you but as always I appreciate your willingness to share from your own life – I think it adds an important dimension to these discussions – for me it reminds me that even people one disagrees with have honestly gotten feelings and opinions on a subject, and that it behooves one to acknowledge and learn from these.

    Fwiw, of course, I think that

    1. The market for all recreational chemicals is driven by demand, not by supply
    2. All demand is not addiction, which is a separate, serious, issue;
    3. Addiction is driven by deeper factors in an individual’s life – it is not substance specific, addicts switch substances when option one is unavailable; and
    4. Addressing those deeper factors (where possible) is best done by families and communities – I don’t think the Government can do this meaningfully

    [Edited for formatting.]

    I have to admit that everything I thought about the war on drugs being in place at least for heroin I had to rethink last week. Thanks, guys. :)

    My objections stem from stories I’ve read about how the drug dealers prey on the runaways in our cities.

    I don’t like the death penalty, but I can’t think of any reason to spare these lowlife dealers.

    But I realize that most people see heroin as just another drug, and I guess some people–and this I did not know until last week–can handle it.

    So I don’t know what to think about it anymore.

    • #6
    • November 21, 2014, at 7:17 PM PST
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  7. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    I have no love for the stronger or any drug being abused. I come from a family of alcoholics and drug abusers. For the life of me I can not see how taking an addict, an abuser, an alcoholic, with all the issues that go with those conditions and making them a criminal. How taking the individuals and their families’ resources and using it to fight and pay the legal system to keep them out of jail instead of using these resource to help the individual and the family. I do not know what the answer to drug abuse is, but I do know what it is not, and that would be our current system.

    • #7
    • November 21, 2014, at 8:18 PM PST
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  8. Jennifer Johnson Inactive
    Jennifer Johnson

    I’m not sure I was clear enough in this paragraph:

    …I do think that keeping harmful substances illegal puts a damper on demand, but mainly because it instills fear in those who might otherwise use the harmful substances. I think we can all agree that it would be better to reduce demand based on the free and willing choice of individuals to refrain from those substances….

    I would like it to read like this:

    …Keeping harmful substances illegal puts a damper on demand, but mainly because it instills fear in those who might otherwise use the harmful substances. I think we can all agree that fear is not the best motivator–refraining from illegal drugs due to fear it’s a choice made in a negative sense because it’s avoiding something. It would be much better if we could reduce demand by individuals refraining from those substances for positive reasons, not negative ones…

    • #8
    • November 21, 2014, at 8:26 PM PST
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  9. Jennifer Johnson Inactive
    Jennifer Johnson

    Zafar:Parent A (if you prefer us to use this as your name here), I often (usually?) don’t agree with you but as always I appreciate your willingness to share from your own life – I think it adds an important dimension to these discussions – for me it reminds me that even people one disagrees with have honestly gotten feelings and opinions on a subject, and that it behooves one to acknowledge and learn from these.

    Fwiw, of course, I think that

    1. The market for all recreational chemicals is driven by demand, not by supply
    2. All demand is not addiction, which is a separate, serious, issue;
    3. Addiction is driven by deeper factors in an individual’s life – it is not substance specific, addicts switch substances when option one is unavailable; and
    4. Addressing those deeper factors (where possible) is best done by families and communities – I don’t think the Government can do this meaningfully

    [Edited for formatting.]

    Thanks, Zafar. Either name is fine.

    • #9
    • November 21, 2014, at 8:27 PM PST
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  10. Annefy Member

    Parent A : I managed to navigate the 70s and 80s virtually unscathed. (There is a real benefit to being unattractive, wish the same for your daughters). I have a beloved sister-in-law who has an addicted father. I never even knew until recently he was still alive.

    My SIL is an angel on this earth and a blessing to my family. And she will never, never get over that her father chose drugs over her and her sisters. I have never met him, but I can only guess at the seduction of addiction that he chose it over three beautiful daughters.

    • #10
    • November 21, 2014, at 8:53 PM PST
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  11. Michael Minnott Member
    Michael Minnott Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    It’s tricky, in both practical and moral terms, because it brings into question the very basis of our freedoms.

    On the one hand you have the principle that I should be free to put in my body what I want, since I accept the consequences of that choice. This sounds great on 4th of July, roasting weenies and waxing patriotic. It becomes much harder to stomach when the depredations of addiction hit home.

    On the other hand having the state ban something that is so potentially destructive to myself and others holds the promise of protecting me from my own folly. In practice this serves to undermine civil liberties and contributes to the militarization of law enforcement.

    My suggestion is that marijuana should be legal, at least at the Federal level (states and municipalities can make their own laws to suit themselves). “Hard” drugs such as meth and heroin should be decriminalized. They would be unavailable for general distribution (without a prescription), but possession would only warrant a fine. This would hopefully limit their use to a relatively small sub-culture, while also avoiding the problems of overzealous law enforcement.

    • #11
    • November 21, 2014, at 11:03 PM PST
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  12. Fred Cole Member

    So, if we change the word “drugs” to the word “alcohol,” why should our policy approach be different?

    • #12
    • November 22, 2014, at 4:50 AM PST
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  13. Fred Cole Member

    Annefy:

    Fred Cole:So wait, why is it the government’s job to police what people put in their own bodies?

    I didn’t parse every word of the OP, but if that was claimed, I missed it.

    Well, she was talking about attacking demand. So we have a public information campaign or something to convince people to not do cocaine. Why is that any of the government’s business?

    The whole premise starts with it being public policy to protect people from themselves. I’m asking why that is.

    • #13
    • November 22, 2014, at 4:52 AM PST
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  14. MJBubba Inactive

    I am thinking that we should consider controlling all drugs, including marijuana, the way my state controls Sudafed. It is available “behind the counter,” but there is a strict limit on how much an individual can purchase in a month. Since you have to show an I.D. and sign for it at the pharmacy, it is only available when the pharmacy is open. The Pharm Tech (no need for the Pharmacist) enters your name and the amount into a state database. If you exceed the daily limit or the monthly limit, no Sudafed for you.

    This keeps Sudafed out of the hands of the dealers who use it to cook meth. It seems to me we could eliminate the dealers by simply allowing the users to purchase amphetamines. By placing a limit there could be mailed warnings about these purchases, and targeted outreach programs to offer help for people who find them attractive.

    We could allow recreational drug use to be legal, but still be controlled and provide opportunities to provide aid for those folk who are self-medicating for mental health issues that could then be diagnosed and guided to better treatments.

    • #14
    • November 22, 2014, at 6:51 AM PST
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  15. Fred Cole Member

    It also makes people seeking allergy relief fee like criminals for marginal benefit.

    • #15
    • November 22, 2014, at 7:05 AM PST
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  16. MarciN Member

    Michael Minnott: On the one hand you have the principle that I should be free to put in my body what I want, since I accept the consequences of that choice. This sounds great on 4th of July, roasting weenies and waxing patriotic. It becomes much harder to stomach when the depredations of addiction hit home.

    This is so true.

    I’ve worried about homeless people all my life. And when people talk about them, they say, “But two-thirds of them are alcoholics and drug addicts. There’s nothing you can do for them.” It is the weirdest way to talk about people. But there it is.

    The government housing programs won’t allow them into available apartments. There’s no room in the rehab programs. But it wouldn’t matter anyway because those are too short and don’t get the person completely well–with a job and an apartment. So it’s thirty days and back out again. Very few halfway houses. They just can’t get well.

    So its cardboard boxes and under bridges for these people. No one even knows who they are–the numbers of unidentified homeless people buried in every major city every year is staggering.

    I’m not in favor of prohibition, but these conditions existed when it passed, and I understand why people voted for it.

    What’s really hard to believe is that between 1920, when Prohibition was enacted, to 2014, we’re no further along in preventing the side-effects from ravaging our fellow human beings.

    • #16
    • November 22, 2014, at 7:40 AM PST
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  17. MarciN Member

    There’s nothing like telling myself “there’s no answer” to wake up the rest of my brain to say “yes, there is, you idiot!”

    I was just thinking that an unregulated drug marketplace might hold the answer. If people were able to access any drug they wanted, then the supply side would respond by developing safer drugs that do the same things for people–drown their sorrow, lift their spirits, whatever–that these illicit and addictive drugs do for them now.

    I always look at the food marketplace as the model for everything else. It is a little bit regulated, but not much compared to education and healthcare. And it works!

    You could make the same case about food that we make for healthcare. It’s about life and death, blah blah blah. But there are inexpensive alternatives in the food marketplace. In healthcare, it’s either the expensive option or none at all. That’s because of the government’s intrusion into it.

    • #17
    • November 22, 2014, at 7:53 AM PST
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  18. MJBubba Inactive

    Thanks, MarciN.

    Back to the headline question: “What is the problem with illegal drugs?”

    They were outlawed for a reason. They all offer a false sense of feeling better. The taker may actually feel better for a while, but the negative effects of all these drugs are quite costly, usually with effects on mental health. They are most appealing to folk who have mental illnesses to start with; part of their appeal is that they provide a temporary relief from symptoms of real mental health problems. Many times those problems went undiagnosed, and the first indication of a mental health condition is a drug problem, which then masks the original problem. The legal complications make it that much harder for the drug taker to get steered into appropriate treatment.

    America is way overdue for a thorough debate over mental health issues.

    • #18
    • November 22, 2014, at 9:09 PM PST
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  19. MarciN Member

    MJBubba: They are most appealing to folk who have mental illnesses to start with; part of their appeal is that they provide a temporary relief from symptoms of real mental health problems.

    So very true.

    There used to be an often-quoted statement in suicide prevention that “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake made a really interesting point about heroin, that it is a sedative.

    As long as people are killing themselves quietly, . . .

    I think the rise in heroin use is a direct byproduct of the Great Recession. People don’t see growth and hope. So they commit to a life of slow suicide.

    Adding to the problem is the reality that schools are emotionally negative places. It really disturbed me when I was volunteering in public schools how boring and negative they were for at least half of the kids.

    And the media adds to the problem too. People are surrounded by upbeat marketing messages specifically and television generally, which present “finished” middle-class happy lives, which seem impossible to attain for half of the young people out there. It must feel to a third of the population that America is having a party and they’re not invited.

    I can remember my parents’ expressing their concern that Hollywood was “educating people to a life of discontent.” It seems like a strange sentiment to express today, but I think there was some truth in it.

    Heroin, I guess, is a symptom of a much larger problem, as you said.

    • #19
    • November 23, 2014, at 8:33 AM PST
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  20. Fred Cole Member

    MJBubba: They were outlawed for a reason. They all offer a false sense of feeling better. The taker may actually feel better for a while, but the negative effects of all these drugs are quite costly, usually with effects on mental health. They are most appealing to folk who have mental illnesses to start with; part of their appeal is that they provide a temporary relief from symptoms of real mental health problems. Many times those problems went undiagnosed, and the first indication of a mental health condition is a drug problem, which then masks the original problem. The legal complications make it that much harder for the drug taker to get steered into appropriate treatment.

    You’re making an irrationally broad generalization about “drugs” as if they’re just one big thing.

    First, they’re not. Second, why not include alcohol?

    Third, that they’re most appealing to people with mental illness is just false. You’re welcome to cite data to the contrary.

    Fourth, even if that’s the case, so the hell what? Aspirin and morphine are most appealing to people in pain and only provide temporary relief. You say this as if palliation isn’t a perfectly legitimate use.

    • #20
    • November 23, 2014, at 9:29 AM PST
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  21. MarciN Member

    Fred, I think people do see all of the mood- and mind-altering substances in the same light–alcohol accounts for a third of the homeless population, by some estimates, and other drugs account for another third. No one in the addiction treatment world sees these differently.

    The 1984-Brave New World aspect of drug use today, when one includes the full range of psychiatric drugs, looks like the government wants total control of this marketplace and population. It is creepy and weird that the government decides what addictions are okay.

    The government loves to prescribe sedation to the mentally ill population. For obvious reasons. And they are always surprised when they don’t get it right and some mentally ill person doesn’t behave according to the government’s plan.

    Rehab is expensive; sedation is cheap.

    • #21
    • November 23, 2014, at 11:52 AM PST
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  22. captainpower Inactive

    MarciN: Rehab is expensive; sedation is cheap.

    Opiates are the opiates of the masses, to twist Karl Marx’s “religion is the opiate of the masses” quote.

    • #22
    • November 23, 2014, at 12:21 PM PST
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  23. MarciN Member

    captainpower:

    MarciN: Rehab is expensive; sedation is cheap.

    Opiates are the opiates of the masses, to twist Karl Marx’s “religion is the opiate of the masses” quote.

    Yup.

    • #23
    • November 23, 2014, at 12:47 PM PST
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  24. Jennifer Johnson Inactive
    Jennifer Johnson

    I located this reference on Wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrison_Narcotics_Tax_Act

    This quote from there stood out to me:

    House representative Thomas Sisson stated, “The purpose of this bill—and we are all in sympathy with it—is to prevent the use of opium in the United States, destructive as it is to human happiness and human life.”

    I’m just wondering about the back stories that precipitated the passage of the Act, if any. People’s suffering is a powerful motivator. If enough grieving family members stood before lawmakers telling their stories, I can see why the Act was passed. But I’m just speculating–I don’t know if that happened. Does anybody here know?

    • #24
    • November 23, 2014, at 2:10 PM PST
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  25. Fred Cole Member

    Excuseme, Jennifer, but you intentionally misread that article? You seemed to have missed a few parts…

    From that same Wikipedia article:

    At the beginning of the 20th century, cocaine began to be linked to crime. In 1900, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial stating, “Negroes in the South are reported as being addicted to a new form of vice – that of ‘cocaine sniffing’ or the ‘coke habit.'” Some newspapers later claimed cocaine use caused blacks to rape white women and was improving their pistol marksmanship. Chinese immigrants were blamed for importing the opium-smoking habit to the U.S. The 1903 blue-ribbon citizens’ panel, the Committee on the Acquirement of the Drug Habit, concluded, “If the Chinaman cannot get along without his dope we can get along without him.”

    And:

    Wright further claimed that “it has been authoritatively stated that cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes of the South and other sections of the country,” though he failed to mention specifically which authorities had stated that, and did not provide any evidence for his claim.[6] Wright also stated that “one of the most unfortunate phases of smoking opium in this country is the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives or cohabitating with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities”.[7][8]

    • #25
    • November 23, 2014, at 3:51 PM PST
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  26. Fred Cole Member

    And:

    The drafters played on fears of “drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes” and made references to Negroes under the influence of drugs murdering whites, degenerate Mexicans smoking marijuana, and “Chinamen” seducing white women with drugs.[16][17] Dr. Hamilton Wright, testified at a hearing for the Harrison Act. Wright alleged that drugs made blacks uncontrollable, gave them superhuman powers and caused them to rebel against white authority. Dr. Christopher Koch of the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania testified that “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain”.[4]

    Before the Act was passed, on February 8, 1914, The New York Times published an article entitled “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are New Southern Menace: Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower-Class Blacks” by Edward Huntington Williams, which reported that Southern sheriffs had increased the caliber of their weapons from .32 to .38 to bring down Negroes under the effect of cocaine.[4][8][12]

    Despite the extreme racialization of the issue that took place in the buildup to the Act’s passage, the contemporary research on the subject indicated that black Americans were in fact using cocaine and opium at much lower rates than white Americans.[18]

    • #26
    • November 23, 2014, at 3:53 PM PST
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  27. Zafar Member

    Most societies seem to be prone to panics – moral and other. Perhaps we inevitably have to go through a few bad iterations of laws before we stumble onto sensible ones? It’s very hard to differentiate between fears/feelings and realistic outcomes.

    • #27
    • November 23, 2014, at 4:34 PM PST
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  28. Jennifer Johnson Inactive
    Jennifer Johnson

    Fred, I am putting forth these questions in good faith. “Intentionally misread” is a unfortunate choice of words to characterize my intentions here (not to mention an oxymoron). I’m trying to understand the full dynamic of what lead up to drug prohibition generally, and that Act in particular. For example, what other testimonies were given while that Act was being debated? Are the racially-related testimonies the only testimonies? More generally, what other kinds of drug-related outcries, if any, were going on in the culture between 1860 and 1914?

    • #28
    • November 23, 2014, at 4:51 PM PST
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  29. Jennifer Johnson Inactive
    Jennifer Johnson

    Zafar:Most societies seem to be prone to panics – moral and other. Perhaps we inevitably have to go through a few bad iterations of laws before we stumble onto sensible ones? It’s very hard to differentiate between fears/feelings and realistic outcomes.

    Good observation.

    • #29
    • November 23, 2014, at 5:13 PM PST
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  30. Zafar Member

    Jennifer, it strikes me that a question about ‘illegal drugs’ actually contains (at least) four issues:

    1. Definitions: Drugs are precisely what? Is liquor a drug? How about nicotine? Sugar?
    2. How useful is legality as a marker? (Why exactly is Bourbon legal and ecstacy illegal?)
    3. How moral/efficacious is the infringement of free will by legislation in this case? And
    4. Is the actual use problematic, why, why not, for whom, using what measures, who decides?

    I know that they all interact, but each of these is a full discussion!

    • #30
    • November 23, 2014, at 8:19 PM PST
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