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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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 create