Dalrymple and Drugs: Legalization

This is the first in a series of posts regarding Theodore Dalrymple’s analysis of drug use (a series we considered titling “Dalrymple On Drugs” before prudence won out). Over the years, drug use has been a regular topic of his writing. Many of his Spectator columns and City Journal essays have drawn upon his work treating patients who have overdosed (either accidentally or intentionally), and his psychiatric counseling of these patients has been an important source of his knowledge of the modern underclass lifestyle. His 2006 book Romancing Opiates (called Junk Medicine in Britain) sought to shatter many of the myths surrounding opiate addiction and withdrawal, and argued that the treatment industry now flourishing in Britain actually encouraged and benefitted from increased opiate usage.

His most extensive writing on the issue of drug legalization is his 1997 City Journal essay “Don’t Legalize Drugs“, which rebutted the major claims made on behalf of legalization. On a blog called “Looking At the Left”, a photojournalist named El Marco has made interesting use of the essay by combining some of its passages with photos he took documenting an event, held annually at the University of Colorado and tolerated by the university and the police, called “Smoke Out”, in which well over 10,000 of our best and brightest young people put down their Shakespeare and their Heidegger and pick up their joints and water pipes in protest against what they regard as the horrible injustice of marijuana laws.

One can dispute the scale and significance of the event. Is it a further slide down the slippery slope of cultural degradation or just a harmless echo of the Sixties? Didn’t more than a few of us try marijuana during our time at university? (Yes.) But in the juxtaposition of Dalrymple’s sober and enlightening prose and El Marco’s photos of these superficial youth, with all of their fake countercultural paraphenalia and their devotion to a wayward cause, it’s hard not to see so much potential just…  well… wasted.

32 thoughts on “Dalrymple and Drugs: Legalization

  1. Tayles

    A recurring point that Dalrymple makes is that life cannot be lived according to black-and-white principles, and never is this more true than in the argument against legalising drugs.

    I have always found it ironic that it is those on the political left who are keenest to legalise drugs, on the basis that people should be freed from social constraints. When it comes to economic arguments, however, they maintain that no man is an island and one person’s happiness is another’s misery.

    If they are so eager to find reasons why we should not be economically free, why are they so keen on liberating us from the burden of drug laws? In both instances, I suspect it is not so much freedom itself that they support or oppose, but who it benefits from it.

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  2. Clinton

    “I have always found it ironic that it is those on the political left who are keenest to legalise drugs, on the basis that people should be freed from social constraints. When it comes to economic arguments, however, they maintain that no man is an island and one person’s happiness is another’s misery.”

    Very well put, Tayles.

    I often hear people state the reverse about the right, that they are libertarian on the economy but authoritarian on social issues. I always have two responses: That would actually make sense intellectually, in that a free economy presupposes a moral citizenry. (Of course, this requires one to believe that an interventionary social policy does actually produce more moral individuals.) I think we are certainly seeing now in America the results of economic freedom without certain corresponding virtues (like thrift).

    But most importantly, as I always point out, exactly what are these authoritarian social policies on the right? People say things like, “I want the government out of my paycheck, but also out of my bedroom.” And I always wonder, “In what way exactly is the government in your bedroom now?” Truth be told, 99% of what the government does, outside of national security matters, is regulate the economy. There are virtually no government regulations of private behavior in America.

    That being said, this is virtually my only area of disagreement with Dr. Daniels. I support drug legalization, although he raises some interesting arguments against it that I hadn’t considered.

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  3. Steve

    And here is where the brothers disagree.

    I believe drug use simply doesn’t fall within the realm of human activity that should be protected as fundamental rights, the consequences be damned, and so their legal status should be determined by practical considerations. If drugs were legal, more people would use them, and I think the social costs would clearly outweigh the benefits. Therefore, they should remain illegal.

    I will say, however, that if we lived in an age of strong personal responsibility, we might be able to trust people to use them without exhibiting any negative effects, but since too many of us act like children today, we can’t trust each other with that responsibility.

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  4. Clinton

    Dissension in the blog ranks! Fun!

    Of course drug use is not a right, much less a fundamental one, and should not be “protected” on that (or any other) basis. But it should, in my opinion, not be made illegal, and this decision should be determined by practical considerations and at the local level. I don’t accept that legalization would cause any appreciable increase in drug use, except perhaps in the very short term.

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  5. Constantine

    I happen to agree with Dalrymple when he writes about the common misconception that drugs are to blame for turning law abiding citizens into rampant criminals. The idea that addicted criminals wouldn’t be committing crime if their drug of choice was freely available does not stand up to scrutiny.

    However for those drug takers who lead otherwise crime free lives to be punished with incarceration and criminal status for their use is, in my opinion, overstepping the mark and leads to fundamental questions of personal responsibility and government power over the individual.

    A mature and responsible user (as Dalrymple himself points out) can lead a perfectly normal, productive and moral life, avoiding the decline into crime and ruin that befalls so many users.

    I remain unconvinced that these people should have their liberty taken away because of the irresponsibility of others.

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  6. Tayles

    Had consumption of drugs (and here I’m talking about marijuana or harder – not cigarettes or alcohol) been an unproblematic part of public life since time immemorial, then no doubt we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    But history has taught us a hard lesson about the social effects of drug use (above and beyond the crime-related issues), which resulted in the laws that we now have in place. We could, of course, assume that people are fundamentally decent, moral individuals who would probably not bother with drugs. We might also assume that those who do dabble wouldn’t let it affect their lives adversely. Experience suggests otherwise, however.

    I’m no old-fashioned patrician. In the main, I think that morals are better upheld through stigma and social sanctions than via laws, which invariably lack the legitimacy of traditional morality. When the state determines what is right and wrong, it simply gives licence to act as we please providing we don’t break any laws. We’re now seeing the effects of that degraded approach to personal behaviour in Britain.

    I simply cannot see the sense in legalising drugs. As Dr Daniels says, there are so many uncertainties, so much to lose and so little to gain.

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  7. Jason Bontrager

    “But history has taught us a hard lesson about the social effects of drug use (above and beyond the crime-related issues), which resulted in the laws that we now have in place.”

    I have to question this assertion. The current drug prohibition stemmed, as I understand it, more from racist motives than from concern about the social effects of drug use. What history are you referring to with respect to said social effects of drug use? What drugs, aside from alcohol, have ever done significant social damage in the West?

    Certainly opium took its toll on the Orient, but the same could be said of refined spirits when they were first introduced in the West. But marijuana has been available, and used, for centuries prior to its prohibition, with no significant harm arising therefrom as far as I know.

    If my understand of the history of marijuana is flawed then I welcome enlightenment. Insofar as the current situation is concerned, the Drug War confers far too much power on the government at all levels, and introduces far too many opportunities for, and temptations to, corruption to be worth the price. In my opinion anyway.

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  8. Jonathan Levy

    I’ve gotten the impression that Dr. Dalrymple’s opinion on drug legalization is to some degree influenced by an example which he often quotes in this context:

    (Steve, I hope you will correct me if necessary, as I’m quoting from memory)

    When in South Africa, he observed the behavior of a British construction crew who had access to (effectively) free alcohol, and they were habitually so drunk as to be incontinent of urine and feces, behaved violently towards people, and destroyed valuable equipment through negligence. Other crews which did not have this perk were much better behaved, though they did drink.

    His conclusion was this: Reduce the price of a drug dramatically, and consumption will increase dramatically.

    Combine this with another observation of his, that drug use (heroin in particular) usually follows a life of crime, rather than being its cause, and you see how he’s reached his conclusion.

    Drug users are usually criminals before they start taking drugs – therefore, making drugs legal will not reduce crime. Legalizing drugs will dramatically increase consumption, with all its attendant ills. Therefore, we should not legalize drugs.

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  9. Tayles

    Although early restrictions on the importation and use of opium were driven by anti-Chinese sentiment, later legislation, such as our own Misuse of Drugs Act, was designed to prevent the social effects of drug use.

    You’re right to argue that drugs have not brought Western civilisation to its knees, but it could be equally argued that this is because of the introduction of anti-drug laws designed to prevent that from every happening. Certainly it has wrought terrible damage on those sections of society that are most willing to break the law.

    Marijuana (and to a lesser extent cocaine) is often singled out as being an exception to the rule. We are told it is non-addictive and harmless. And yet anyone who knows regular users will attest to the fact that it does have its detrimental effects. I had to sack someone because after a night smoking dope he was practically useless at work.

    I realise the same point can be made about alcohol, but rightly or wrongly booze has always been part of our culture and we have learned to live with its social effects. To legally introduce further drugs to our society for the sake of ideological consistency would, in my opinion, be dangerous. We have enough problems as it is.

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  10. Michael Flood

    Jonathan, you highlight the argument I find the most persuasive in Dalrymple’s essay, the one that supports his objection to the Pragmatic Argument. This is a valid appeal to personal experience, as the effects Dalrymple saw were so prevalent in a localized population. I have seen the same behavior on my university campus when young people are allowed access to cheap liquor.

    We must, of course, be wary of arguments that rely too much on personal experience in every situation. Read the comments on El Marco’s blog. First, I note that the discussion level is much below the level of this blog, and second, that many pro-drug responses are references to personal experience: “Hey, marijuana didn’t wreck my life! It must be okay!” Imagine the same argument being made about the harmfulness of cigarette smoking by the relatives of a man who, smoking a pack a day for forty years, died from causes unconnected to cigarette smoking. That some persons can responsibly use drugs is not an issue. The issue is about the effects of drug use on a whole society.

    I, for one, cannot deny that people can use drugs responsibly. I indulged in marijuana use once a week for my first year of university before giving it up (discovered metaphysics and ontology, found I got ‘higher’ thinking about deep issues of existence and being than I ever did on any drug). My use never appreciably affected my school performance or social life. In my hometown, however, I saw many, many people who were stalled in life because of marijuana and other drugs, never developing the intellect and emotional maturity to organize and make something valuable of their life.

    Jason, you are right that the current War on Drugs, at least in the United States, confers far too much power on the government and swells a for-profit prison system with relatively harmless offenders. Worse, it creates disrespect for the law. I, however, have doubts that the situation can be corrected by legislation such as legalization or decriminalization. I agree with Dalrymple that legalization or decriminalization might lead to even greater interference in private life as more employers started requiring regular drug testing.

    Even legalization would not defeat crime. Any product like this would be taxed and, as cigarette smuggling rings have shown us, markets can exist for even legal products if they can be made available tax free. Worse, legalization might provide an additional legitimate arm for money laundering to gangs and cartels, who are frequently involved in more than one illicit enterprise at a time.

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  11. Tayles

    Good comments. I think Dalrymple is particularly astute because he relies on personal experience that is so vast that is sidesteps the usual accusations of sample bias.

    The standard liberal tactic is to dismiss anecdotal evidence and personal opinion on the basis that it is limited in scope and inconclusive. Dalrymple’s experience, however, brooks no argument and merely confirms what so many of us already know but which is difficult to prove. It is why Dalrymple is such a persuasive and credible social commentator. We ignore him at our peril.

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  12. Clinton

    “You’re right to argue that drugs have not brought Western civilisation to its knees, but it could be equally argued that this is because of the introduction of anti-drug laws designed to prevent that from every happening.”

    I would think anyone defending the current anti-drug regime has a very large task ahead of them. If America, for one, is truly fighting a “War on Drugs”, I think you would have to say that the drugs are winning. There is basically nothing to show for the decades of massive expenditures and enormous manpower that have been committed. if any headway is to be made, it would have to be on the demand side.

    Undoubtedly laws may affect demand by reinforcing existing social conventions, but can they replace them? I can’t answer authoritatively, but I doubt it. Dr. Daniels himself has said (quoting the excellent CBC interview from memory) “I don’t think you could have a society where everyone behaves well because they fear the midnight knock on the door. First of all, I don’t think that’s possible, and even if it were possible it would be very unpleasant.”

    “I realise the same point can be made about alcohol, but rightly or wrongly booze has always been part of our culture and we have learned to live with its social effects.”

    But society still struggles mightily with the effects of alcohol. There is Mothers Against Drunk Driving, constant public service announcements from government and alcohol producers about the dangers, exhortations to use “designated drivers”, debates about the severity of laws against drunk driving or the legal age of consumption. It is a constant feature of public discourse, due no doubt to the tens of thousands of people who are killed in alcohol-related accidents each year.

    Though I support drug legalization, I admit that I would be worried about the social effect of open public use, and I would hope it would be banned in public.

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  13. Gordon Green

    Regardless of your personal stance on this substance, the issue for me is that if we relax the laws entirely, then the next generation may find more extreme and negative substances to replace the moderate and often pleasant sensation of this substance.

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  14. Gordon Green

    Regardless of your personal stance on this substance, the issue for me is that if we relax the laws entirely, then the next generation may find more extreme and negative substances to replace the moderate and often pleasant sensation of this substance.

    Reply
  15. Matej

    Greetings Mr. Dalrymple,

    I am writing you, because I have a few questions about your article Don’t legalize drugs in the City Journal. You see, I am writing my thesis about the legal aspects of decriminalization and regulation of drugs and would like to present both sides and all the alternatives as objective as possible.

    1.In the article you state, that “Amsterdam,/…/, is among the most violent and squalid cities in Europe.” – What is the source or statistic for this statement?

    2. You mention a case of UK construction workers in project aid for Africa, and describe it as by accident having one experimental group and a few control groups. I would be really thankful if I could get some numbers (statistics) of this case, as I have also found similar results (traveling around the world I found that my decision to drink alcohol was linked to the price of it, even though in my home country of Slovenia I drink alcohol every week).

    Thank You,
    Matej

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  16. Belinda Rushworth

    Dear Dr. Dalrymple,
    I am a big fan of your writing and have greatly enjoyed reading several of your books in the past, finding your style of writing to be both stimulating and eye opening. However, I was left somewhat dissapointed by your article regarding drug legalisation, and felt that it relied rather too heavily on personal opinion vs factual information, and had a few questions left unanswered. I have always been an ardent supporter of our drug laws, but have lately become somewhat disillusioned as it seems children can get hold of drugs more easily now than legally regulated drugs such as alcohol. The situation has become personal to me lately as my teenage son has actually developed a fairly serious opiate addiction simply by brewing tea from poppies that grow wild in our local area, something I was never aware of until now – he is now on suboxone because of this. I always ensured he stayed away from any bad people but wish I had known about the risks from these plants earlier!

    I have two main questions:

    1. You state that addicts given their opioids for free continue to commit crime in spite of this fact. When you refer to such opioids, it appeared you were referring to methadone therapy, which leaves me with a small dilemma. Although methadone is indeed an opioid and will remove physical withdrawal, addicts do not consider it in any way a suitable substitute for actual heroin. When those with an existing opiate tolerance take methadone, I am aware that most addicts report few positive opiate effects and that it merely acts to prevent withdrawal. As a result a significant proportion continue to use heroin on top, since they still have the existing psychological problems that only their drug of choice, heroin, can block out. Therefore the reason addicts on this treatment still commit crime is to obtain heroin. I am aware of the statistics that the few addicts treated with actual diamorphine in this country do indeed stop committing crimes as this after all is what they truly (feel they) need. Therefore my question is, wouldn’t it have been more accurate to cite the crime rate amongst addicts on heroin replacement (i.e. given their actual opiate of choice) as opposed to methadone, which isn’t really considered by addicts to be a total replacement?
    2. Secondly, you state that nobody is an island, and that it is impossible to use drugs responsibly without harm to others, using this fact as an argument against legalisation. Given that the vast majority of violence, driving accidents and general harm to others occurs under the influence of the most common drug, alcohol, does your desire to protect against harm extend to this? I.e. would you also be in favour of alcohol prohibition. Or do you believe that laws against causing such harm, e.g. drink driving laws, are suitable enough, and if so why wouldn’t such laws be enough to protect against harm to others caused by other drugs, as opposed to laws prohibiting these drugs outright?

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