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Legalization is not a single point at the end of a continuum

… it is a continuum.

I was reading an article by Tom Chivers in the Telegraph: Drug laws and evidence-based policy: it’s time to start doing experiments on the British people. Interesting article with some good points, but this hit me:

I’m asking these questions to show that it’s a complicated business, the “War” on “Drugs”. Complicated and multilayered, so much so that it’s almost silly to think of it as a single “war” (if we must insist on the martial metaphor) on a single entity called “drugs”. Anyone with a simple, straightforward answer – “Legalise everything” or “String ’em all up”, usually – is almost certainly completely wrong.

He’s right, of course, on the fact that there are a lot of people out there giving attributes to the word “drugs” (harmful, addictive, etc.) as if all drugs were the same. And they’re not.

However, the “‘Legalise everything’ or ‘String ’em all up'” bit is a false equivalency.

Let’s take a look at it (I’m sure Tom would allow us to substitute “all drugs” for “everything” for the sake of this discussion).

“Legalize all drugs” is actually another way of saying “find another way of dealing with drugs other than prohibition.” It isn’t a single solution, nor is it a simple, straightforward answer. It isn’t a statement proclaiming “legalize all drugs and don’t regulate them in any way, unlike every other product on earth.”

No legalizer expects that we will legalize all drugs and have no controls whatsoever. We’ve made it very clear that the definition of legalization includes a whole host of possible regulations (and yes, different ones for different drugs). Read Transform’s Blueprint for Regulation for a prime example of some of the myriad of different options that exist within legalization.

Legalization isn’t an extreme point. It’s a call to no longer use one particular kind of regulation: criminal prohibition.

Criminal prohibition is only one of many ways to regulate drugs. And it’s the worst one.


Don’t miss:

It’s drugs politics, not drug policy, that needs an inquiry – a righteous rant by Simon Jenkins

Britain on drugs is where China is on hanging, Saudi Arabia on beating, Russia on censorship and the Taliban on girls’ education. Drugs policy is the last legislative wilderness where “here be dragons”, a hangover from days when abortion and homosexuality were illegal and divorce expensive. […]

The mere word drugs gives every politician the heebie-jeebies and turns libertarians into control freaks. […]

What should be researched is not drugs policy but drugs politics, the hold that taboo has on those in power, and the thrall that rightwing newspapers have over them. This has nothing to do with public opinion, which is now strongly in favour of reform. Most sensible people find the present regime disastrous and want drugs regulated, rather than the wild west that is the urban drug scene today. It is politicians who think “soft on drugs” implies some loss of potency.

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28 comments to Legalization is not a single point at the end of a continuum

  • cy Klebs

    I’m not sure that Bambi will win. I really don’t want straight incorporated setting drug policy;anywhere. What do they mean we shouldn’t fear Willard?

    • darkcycle

      Mel Sembler is giving money to Rmoney, but he’ll never be Drug Czar, or anything like it. He’s way too dirty, and as a child abuser, he’ll be toxic as soon as the election is finished. I think you can relax. And Obushma is in no way going to change the marijuana policy in this country. Have you not noticed the crackdown in effect? Hopey the eighth Dwarf is in the process of clearing the decks for Sativex. He just sent letters to the last remaining dispensaries in the Downtown L.A. district, and the LAST one in Huntington Beach. The federal Storm Troopers are in full deployment already. Rmoney doesn’t have the personell available to hit any harder.

  • There is perhaps a purposeful vagary to saying drug users need treatment. Those in the treatment business or the Government prefer it that way.

    http://tinyurl.com/8mxen99
    Howard Meitiner, President and CEO, Phoenix House has an article posted in the Huff that gives a perfect example of this idea that legalization is not a single point at the end of a continuum.

    “We agree that non-violent drug users belong in treatment–not in jail. The policy of arresting marijuana users and petty dealers has only exacerbated America’s explosive incarceration rate, the highest in the developed world. We know this must change. So there you have it: we can all agree on marijuana decriminalization.”

    His point seems to be, as long as we agree that non violent drug USERS belong in treatment not jail, he is on our side. I attempted to point out that drug USERS do not belong in treatment either. I doubt my comment was printed. Just because people are in and out of the pharmacies buying drugs all day does not make them customers for Phoenix House.

    It serves those in the treatment business and the Government to promote the idea that any drug use = needing treatment. That opens up every marijuana user as a customer instead of the measly 1% that are purported to have a problem. Generalizing things obscures the real issues and creates the idea that a problem exists where there is none. Ending the drug war should mean addressing the real issues. Not lumping them all together in one big easy to see generic ball of wax. This needs to turn from an underhanded business attempt at expanding the customer database into a real attempt at providing the help for those that really need it and ask for it outside of a coercive environment like the Department of Justice. It takes some confront and work to come up with some real answers to some real problems.

    Right now the hardest thing of all is in getting the quick buck artists out of the business.

    • I had a Twitter exchange with Howard not so long ago, which resulted in this comment from him:

      @DrugWarRant we can both agree that #marijuana needs to be decriminalized. Non-violent drug users don’t belong in jail.

      … which was more positive than I expected. But, of course, the devil is in the details, and it’s critical that we make it clear that non-violent users who are not abusers don’t belong in treatment either.

      • Francis

        Yep, and non-violent sellers don’t belong in jail either. Hell, non-violent people don’t belong in jail. (Please note that drug warriors are NOT non-violent people.)

  • CJ

    pete appreciate the piece you wrote here. very good stuff. i was thinking over your comment about how the lot of legalization advocates dont expect free flow legalization and understand and accept the need for controls and sanctions on the legal market.

    i was thinking, just hear me out, i understand the get reaction is to throw up ones arms and say im being unreasonable but if i may, i dont even know because ive not really thought about the details of the details if you will… but i was just thinking, how, you know, i agree there is in my mind anyway a sort of “contingent upon” mentality amongst legalization advocates, the sort that implies that there would be intricate levels of controls and various mechanisms involved in a legalized market….

    but i was wondering, if, PERHAPS, is this because we feel this is a necessary arrangement to bring our goals further to completion?

    FOR EXAMPLE, alcohol prohibition. I am gonna do my very very best not to veer off topic and go nuts on alcohol culture and people that drink, just hear me out, alcohol prohibition happened and then ended all within the span really of one true adult generation who were victims of it and then defeated it (alcohol prohibition) they originally came from a time before prohibition and then saw prohibition and then ended it (for alcohol.)

    they had the benefit of seeing the culture and the workings of the world before, during, and after.

    the sad truth about it is, generations have passed (on) since this all began (drug prohibition) long ago. No heroin/morphine lovers of yesteryear are around anymore really. the fact is, i think, several generations have come and gone because of prohibition (thus why you have such levels of ignorance amongst the common folks who act like prohibition has been around since before christ [drug prohibition i mean]) BUT in some respects would it not be wise for the legalization people that we are to somewhat adopt the attitude that those of us would have back when this all started?

    there are SO MANY F’D up reasons for prohibition but we do ourselves and our goals and the people we represent who are victims everyday but dont have the knowledge nor the resources to come to a place like this because the prohibition machine has them hating themselves and totally ignorant IF WE FORGET THE PAST.

    The past of course was a time when a man could walk into any pharmacy, any chemists office and ask for any drug under the sun he wanted that the chemist could create. Like Genny at Mars Bar could make a Tequila Sunrise like nobody else but I wouldnt order a sex on the beach from her nor anybody but the old man Graham and the Burger Joint Corner Bar we’d have our favorite chemists and maybe there really wouldnt be a difference between them all and what they create but certainly some would become habitual and, developing of a relationship not unlike bartender to bar patron.

    Back then im sure there were opinions amongst the subculture that would best represent us as to drug classes (i.e stoner, junkie, crackhead, etc) but the fact remains, the line at the corner chemist would have a person buying reefer and behind him in line someone who wanted a certain amount of opium.

    let us not forget the global rammifications of the opium war. the fact that the rich and upper classes sympathized with the chinest gov’t who they had beaten twice who had wanted to prohibit opium but when they tried to force it on the people britain beat them into submission twice. things like this and then of course the racist mechanisms that went into place in this country (such as, ban opium because of the chinese immigrants and all the other examples) but it wasnt a response to some kind of George Romero Night of the Living Dead scenario where there was a plague of junkies eating the world to death.

    A priest, infact, a catholic ( i think) priest, or bishop or whatever the heck they call themselves, was a major proponent of the global drug ban, there you have bias in how one *needs* to live, think, what they *have* to do with their time, life, etc. all based on his own opinion, forcing it on the world and so this was a decision with many, many factors. too many to list but my point is, legalized narcotics were a global thing, and, there were very few restrictions on it. I wonder, if, because I know that its there, we as legalization people offer up this compromise of perhaps heavy duty (or even moderate) but nevertheless complicated levels of drug control even in a legalized world, i wonder if this is us just trying to pamper to the god, world and anything not like themselves fearing people who are sick advocates of prohibition. Too much time has passed since prohibition started, too many have suffered, to many victims have been and continue to be chastised over this and generations have come and went, so, we are no longer lead by the voices of reason who lived in, worked, created, experienced etc. the planet earth when it was globally tolerant of drug legalization. Since none of us come from that time, we make offers and decisions based on the heavily dilluted situation where prohibition has reigned supreme for so long but for someone who may have been alive back then, before this started, and, for that someone, who may have been diagnosed with “soldiers disease” the solution of which was to give this person as much opiates as they want for however long they wanted (be it the rest of their life or if they decided in a few days it was enough, it was on them) and not judge them but this being the way of science back then, well, i dont know what kind of common ground a soldiers disease diagnosed person would be willing to cede to prohibitionists but i would bet they’d be mighty different from what our unfortunate generation would…

    • claygooding

      Short version:

      Taking it up the ass in order to win is not acceptable.

    • Matthew Meyer

      Good ol’ Bishop Brent. Stationed in the Philippines, he saw opium as a scourge preventing the locals from advancing, from dedicating their hearts, minds, and bodies to Christ. (He was Episcopalian, by the way.)

      I think his was one of the last cases where the religious impulse behind prohibition was explicitly avowed, which I think makes understanding Bishop Brent and his world important for us.

    • CJ,

      I’m not sure if I fully grasped your epic response (and thanks Claygooding for the other end of the spectrum)….

      But I think you’re saying for the purpose of argument, is it necessary for us to actually talk about regulating drugs under a legalized system? After all, you could get whatever you wanted from a chemist back in the day.

      Well, supposing that’s true, hopefully you know and trust that particular chemist — something that’s a little harder to imagine in today’s world. Today, I would expect that you’d want to be sure that if you walk into a chemist’s and asked for heroin, you wouldn’t get fentanyl. And that, my friend, is regulation.

      Vegetables and meat are regulated, as are the contents of soup cans. There is absolutely no doubt that there will be regulation. Critically, this regulation has to be done without criminal prohibition. The degree of regulation? That’s yet to be determined.

      • Maria

        There’s that cloudy intersection between the spheres of drug regulation, the regulation of consumer products, and the liberty and responsibility, as an adult, to be able to choose what you consume and from who.

        If I want to nurture poppies for my cramps, grow cannabis for my anxiety, brew beer to drink with dinner, have some chickens for my eggs/meat, a garden for my veggies/herbs, or maybe get a cow/goat for my raw milk and cheese. I should be able to do so without the fear of State sanctioned raids, financial punishment, or detention.

        If I want to share the bounty of these items with other informed adults – friends, family, neighbors, strangers even – we should be able to do so. Should be able to freely share or informally trade in exchange for our bounty or for our cost of labor, parts, and effort. We should be able to do so without the fear of State sanctioned raids, financial punishment, or detention.

        If I want to produce, process, and distribute these items at a commercial scale. I should be able to do so under a regulatory, reporting, and taxation system that can differentiate between a vast agrobusiness that operates for/under a larger multinational company, a “family” business, or a “hobby income” producer.

        We should be able to live with and be supported by a system that encourages the honest exchange of information and punishes those that try to circumvent such an exchange. A system that has the health, safety and education of it’s citizens as it’s goals (Note: I’m not talking about controlling health through laws like banning sugary drinks.) rather than a system who’s goals are instilling fear, pumping profit, and gaining control of those same citizens.

        And yeah, I know that it’s not quite that simple. I find it interesting how the fight against drug prohibition intersects with the fight for food freedom and choice.

      • Opiophiliac

        Prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act the marketplace for the currently illicit drugs was basically the same as today only without the prohibition-added tax driving the prices up and of course the existence of numerous government agencies dedicated to suppressing these “bad” drugs (while simultaneously promoting the “good” ones). There was no regulation, most drugs were administered by doctors or sold as patent medicines. The quality control came from the market, yes there were probably a lot of shady businessmen but there were also quality products like Vin Mariana wine (cocaine spiked wine) and Godfrey’s Cordial (alcohol and morphine). The prestige of the company kept their product consistent. Or you could just buy straight cocaine or morphine from a pharma company. Or why not mail order that syringe and ready-to-inject bottle of morphine from the 1898 Sears-Roebuck catalog? On a world market with the economics of scale these drugs are pretty cheap to produce. One reason fentanyl has not replaced heroin on the streets is that, despite efforts at interdiction and crop eradication, growing poppies is still cheaper than producing synthetic opiates.
        Don’t get me wrong I think at least the minimum amount of regulation for any concentrated or synthetic drug would have to include a label of all substances (inert and active) as well as exact dosage. Probably age restrictions too. The one exception might be the plants themselves. Opium, cannabis, coca, khat, peyote, ect could all be sold “as is.”
        In any case I think it would be hard to say a pre-1906 completely unregulated market for drugs is that much different that the current market for illicit drugs. Well I suppose there wasn’t the artificially high prices, high crime and violence associated with the markets nor the sacrificing of our constitutional rights to enforce consenual crimes. Actually compared to modern drug markets under prohibition the “nightmare” scenario of a completely unregulated free-market in psychoactive substances looks pretty good.

  • mr Ikesheeny

    Why have a pandering tap dancing shoeshine boy; when we can have the real thing! in other words…

  • Francis

    Drug laws and evidence-based policy: it’s time to start doing experiments on the British people

    I know I’ve made this point before but that kind of language (and mentality) really pisses me off. Human beings are not lab rats. And prohibition WAS the experiment, although it was most certainly not a noble one. It has resulted in the torture and/or death of millions of its unwilling subjects. And what have we learned from several decades worth of experimental data? Well, mainly that prohibition causes human misery and death. It’s time to STOP the experiment.

  • Dante

    “This has nothing to do with public opinion, which is now strongly in favour of reform. Most sensible people find the present regime disastrous and want drugs regulated, rather than the wild west that is the urban drug scene today. It is politicians who think “soft on drugs” implies some loss of potency.”

    Yep. Almost as if the politicians are living inside a bubble, isolated from the real world that the public inhabits.

  • claygooding

    I still think the smartest thing we could do to avoid the next 10 years after legalization of litigation and continued persecution of marijuana users is to legalize marijuana with as few regulations as possible on it because every regulation drives the retail price on marijuana up and brings the black market back into the picture,,,let anyone that wants sell marijuana to adults,,as much as they want,,let the market set the price and keep politicians out of it.

    We know marijuana,without regulations is just as safe or safer than coffee and it’s time to start asking for recognition of that from the public,,no need of trying to convince drug warriors of anything,,they don’t have enough intelligence to think past their next bribe or winfall from a drug bust.

  • pfroehlich2004

    NYT piece on the upcoming SCOTUS ruling on warrantless sniffer dog searches:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/17/opinion/the-supreme-court-must-draw-a-firm-line-on-police-searches.html?_r=1

  • claygooding

    Marijuana Inmate With Allergy Dies After Being Given Oatmeal

    http://tinyurl.com/d62honw

    Although marijuana has never killed anyone in history, the marijuana laws have claimed another tragic victim.

    Michael Saffioti, 22, who, upon his mother’s advice, had turned himself in to the Lynnwood Police Department after missing a court date, was dead after just one night in the Snohomish County Jail in Washington state, reports Molly Shen of KATU.com. The county could face a lawsuit for ignoring Saffioti’s food allergy. ‘snippeed’

    Another one for Pete’s victim list,,and we just read how much of a tool marijuana was for the sheriff of that jail.

    • claygooding

      This seems to be going viral..article reports two wrongful deaths charged to the jail but a local reports there has been 6 deaths in that jail since 2010,,sounds like they need to get a serial killer out of the sheriffs dept.

      And you know that interview the sheriff gave the other day shows his attitude which is probably reflected throughout his dept.

  • speaking of legalization…

    Consider this a teaching moment. These are students and it’s a debate in the student paper. The one against legalization of ganja needs a remedial english/composition class, the one for just needs to be straightened out a bit. Play nice, comments are open and it’s a fresh, clean and unused blackboard. Let education be thy name…

    [Debate] Marijuana: A catalyst
    http://samfordcrimson.com/2012/debate-marijuana-a-catalyst/

  • Jon Doe

    Hey Pete, will we be getting your take on the Eugene Jarecki interview from last night’s Daily Show?

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-october-16-2012/exclusive—eugene-jarecki-extended-interview-pt–1

  • I know when I say legalize all drugs….That is exactly what I mean….call me uncomplicated if you will…but there it is.

  • A Critic

    “No legalizer expects that we will legalize all drugs and have no controls whatsoever. ”

    I do.

    • Well, then, you’re quite the outlier.

      You think that heroin will be legalized with no age restrictions and that people will be able to legally sell it regardless of what’s in it, including poisons?

      You think that there will be no rules against smoking marijuana in operating rooms of hospitals while oxygen is in use?

      You think that it’ll be OK to give people a drink with 2 grams of cocaine mixed in without telling them?

      Maybe. But I seriiously doubt it.

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  • TrebleBass

    Yeah, legalization can be seen as a continuum, but i think it can also be seen as a binary choice between it and prohibition. Legalization is whenever the default situation for an adult is to be able to possess a drug legally and buy it from a legal vendor. There can be some adults who don’t have access to it, but those would be exceptions (someone on parole or probation for drunk driving who is not allowed to drink, for example). Prescription drugs are legal to possess for some people, but the default position is that they are not legal to possess. Those who can possess it are the exception, so prescription drugs are not legal under this definition. Medical marijuana is not legalization, decriminalization is not legalization (because although adults can possess it by default, they can’t buy it from a legal vendor), heroin maintenance is not legalization. Anything that is not legalization is prohibition.