WRITTEN AND PUBLISHED IN 1976 for James Libertarian Burns
Would you like to see 50% of the crime in the United States eliminated without any increase in taxes? There is a libertarian alternative which makes this both possible and practical.
To many Americans, heroin is the most feared substance in existence. Under the present circumstances, this fear is quite justified [although not necessarily for the reasons most people think]. Let's see why.
First, asume that all the worst things you have heard about heroin and other so-called "hard" drugs are true. Assume, for example, that heroin is the deadly seductress whose tantalizing favors, once sampled, cannot be denied; that one shot of heroin will addict a person for life; that heroin use will cause a person's body to slowly deteriorate; that heroin use inevitably leads to death, etc. Assuming that this is an accurate picture of heroin's effects, who can deny that its use should be discouraged?
Although the truth about heroin is somewhat less damning, indeed its use should be discouraged. However it is time to question the methods, since they are unquestionably failing, which have been chosen to discourge it --- and their exorbitant costs.
The methods which should be questioned are the threat of imprisonment and the force of the police gun. This forceable Prohibition of heroin and other "hard" drugs should be questioned on three levels. The first is on the level of individual liberty and libertarian morality. The second is on the level of effectiveness -- how well does forcible prohibition discourage heroin use. The third level is on the level of cost-benefit.
It should be noted that many of the arguments which follow may also be applied to other "drugs" and other behavior as well. Heroin is the topic here because the facts surrounding its use and attempted prohibition are so dramatic. Thus if the arguments here affect your oppinion on forceable heroin prohibition, you may find other less dramatic circumstances where the same logic applies.
A libertarian draws the line in personal preference only where someone else or their property is damaged. Thus if a heroin user, whether or not under the influence of his drug, harms someone or their property, he has initiated the use of force and at that point and only that point he must make restitution.
In the case of heroin, this philosophy may seem somewhat difficult to accept. It helps if we can put it in a more realistic perspective. As is observed in "The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics," (The "Bible" of Pharmacology), forth edition, "Recent changes in laws concerning the posession for personal use, of psychedelics, CNS [central nervous system] general depressants [heroin, etc.] and CNS stimulants carry with them the potential for converting certain forms of drug abuse (which are most reasonably viewed, at worst, as self destructive behaviors) into serious criminal offenses."
The key phrase here is "which are most reasonably viewed, at worst, as self-destructive behaviors." What is so special about heroin in that respect? People have the right to use alcohol and tobacco, both of which are addicting, both of which are damaging to the body and both of which are reasonably viewed as self destructive.
As a smoker or drinker, how would you react if your "chosen poison" were outlawed? (Alcohol prohibition in the twenties is a good example of just how people DID react.)
You can play Russian Roulette, hang yourself to be cut down at the last minute, sniff glue, "shoot up" (inject) peanut butter, or inhale Pam (all of which have actually been tried.) These practices are all more dangerous than using heroin. Why then all the legislative furor over heroin? In this context, the laws against heroin and other "hard" drugs simply do not make sense. In other contexts they make even less. [Don't forget possibility laws are incorrect! (Szaz)]
If legislation could in fact prevent individuals from doing things that are dangerous to themselves, which it obviously can't, it would not necessarily be desirable. HEW (The Department of Health Education and Welfare), accident figures indicate that driving, stair climbing and bathing would be among the first things to go.
A libertarian believes that the only practical and proper way to influence someone who is not directly harming another is by education and/or persuasion. Thus a libertarian believes that although he or others (including government officials or bureaucrats) may feel that some of your habits or preferences are, for your health and well-being, ill advised or even downright deadly, and while he feels that he has the right to try to talk you out of them, he strongly believes that neither he nor the government has the right to forcibly prevent you from indulging in them. Therefore, on the level of individual liberty and libertarian morality the forcible prohibition on heroin and other "hard" drugs should be discontinued.
The second level upon which the forcible prohibition of heroin use must be questioned is on the level of effectiveness. That is, does heroin prohibition actually retard or stop the spread of heroin use? Since there are so many variable factors involved, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions. But the statistics and analysis are at very least, provocative. Between 1924 (the year the Harrison act was passed, making heroin illegal in the U.S.) and the early 1970's, the number of addicts here increased from about 2000 to well over 250,000. This is an increase of about 12,500%. During the same period in England, where they had no strong prohibition, the number of addicts increased from about 200 to about 300. This is an increase of about 50%. These figures would seem to imply that heroin use spreads approximately 250 times faster under prohibition than it does under other circumstances!
It might seem that there must be some gross error or distortion in these figures --- until an examination of the economics of the situation is made. According to DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) figures, during the forth quarter of fiscal year (FY) 1974, the average daily dose of U.S. "street" heroin was 50 mg. (milligrams). According to DEA figures, U.S. "street" heroin at that time was only 5.7% pure. That means that only 2.85 mg. of the 50 mg. "average daily dose" of U.S. street heroin was actually heroin. The rest was material the heroin was "cut" (diluted) with. Again according to DEA figures, in that same quarter of FY 1974, the wholesale price of pure heroin in Europe was $5.00--five dollars per gram. Thus one milligram (1/1000 of a gram) of regular European heroin at European wholesale would cost $.005, or about 1/2 cent. So the wholesale value of one average dose of American street heroin, if it had been bought in Europe at that time would have been 2.85 mg. x $.005/mg. = $.01425. That is, it was worth about one and a half (1 1/2) cents. According to DEA figures, the cost of that same average dose on the streets of America was $57.50!
This immense and ridiculous difference in price --$57.48-- was caused soley by the laws that make heroin illegal in the U.S. and represents pure profit to drug dealers! Since it is illegal here, many added risks and costs are involved in its production, handling and sales, (primarily the risk of harrassment or imprisonment and the cost of bribes to government and enforcement officials). These things however account for only a very small part of the gross inflation of the street price of heroin in the U.S. By making it technically illegal, the government has in essence created a black market monopoly for those willing and able to pay the bribe, with the taxpayer-supported police as their protection from competition. This enables the bribe payer to raise the price of his backhandedly protected product to astronomical levels.
Thus most of the difference between the 1 1/2 cent wholesale cost of the drug in Europe and the $57.50 street price in this country, a difference of about $57.48 per dose, represents pure profit --- money in someone's pocket. With this sort of profit at stake, and given the strength of the market demand (the addicts need) it pays quite well to give out free samples and to get new users "hooked" in other ways. Many of these new users are people who wouldn't choose to use heroin on their own. They end up addicts solely because of the huge profit margin caused by the attempted prohibition.
It is this set of factors which probably explain why heroin use has grown 250 times faster in the U.S. than in England. That is, because heroin is illegal here, the profit margin in selling it is high; because the margin is high, it pays quite well to "push" heroin to people who wouldn't normally choose to use it. Thus the very laws that were passed to discourage heroin use are probably the primary cause of its spread! A similar effect can be seen in the attempted alcohol prohibition in the twenties.
The anti-libertarian alternative, the initiation and use of force through legislation and the police gun, is clearly out of place and simply does not work in the area of victimless crime. And that is the best thing you can say about it. All theoretical considerations aside, the prohibition approach not only doesn't work, it is counter productive. HEW figures show that despite ever escalating enforcement efforts, there are presently some 400,000 heroin addicts in the U.S. The Las Vegas Mertropolitan Police Department unofficially estimates that from 3,500 to 4,000 of these addicts are in Clark County alone. You could get heroin now, if you wanted it. So could anyone. When asked about the war on drugs, a retired DEA officer stated, only slightly tongue- in-cheek, "The war's over. Drugs won." Therefore on the level of effectiveness, the forcible prohibition on heroin and other "hard" drugs should be discontinued
But even assuming that the policy of forcible prohibition did discourage a few people who might otherwise choose to use heroin from diong so, is the cost worth it? This is the third level at which we must question the policy of forcible prohibition.
According to statistics, violent crimes, amounting to some 50% of all urban crime, including 75% of the muggings and burgleries in some cities are "drug related." According to public information officer Carter, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department considers as a rule of thumb that 50% or better of all crime is "drug related." Most of this drug related crime turns out to be crime against property. Not surprisingly, most of this crime is attributed to heroin users. When you stop to consider the average addict confronted with the necessity of spending $57.50 per day, seven days a week just to support his habit, the connection becomes quite obvious. Most addicts must steal to support their habits!
The President's Counsel on Drug Abuse reported that as of 1975 about $6.3 billion in property damage or loss in that year alone was caused by addicts seeking the price of their outlawed nirvana. [Don't forget the 'fence factor', the discout for selling stolen goods.] So far, from January thru August of this year in areas under their jurisdiction (not including North Las Vegas, Henderson or Boulder City) according to Metro's rule of thumb, the local total amounts to about $5,400,000. In addition, you and I paid out, in 1975, about $630 million in court costs related to the futile attempt to stop the use of so-called hard drugs. And this doesn't even take into account enforcement costs. Minimally, Clark County police agencies expend over $5 million annually on drug related enforcement and an estimated additional $520,000 a year goes for drug related court costs. If the court cost to enforcement cost ratio in Clark County holds nation wide, then the drug related enforcement costs for the entire U.S. would be estimated at about $6 billion. This brings the total bill for attempted heroin and hard drug prohibition nation-wide to approximately $13 billion. This is 4 1/3 times bigger that the entire federal budget for Law Enforcement and Justice for fiscal year 1975! And this is only the dollar cost. In addition we pay a high price in corruption, loss of faith in government, and disrespect for legitimate law, etc. The real danger to you and I lies in the violence --- the knife, the club, or the gun used by the addict in a frenzy to obtain the $30-$200 per day to support his habit.
None of this is necessary. Heroin use does not directly induce its users to violence and robbery. Again according to The Pharmacological Basis for Therapeutics, "Morphine" (and its semi-synthetic derivatives such as diacetylmorphine --- heroin --- ) "exerts in man a narcotic action manifested by analgesia" (pain reduction) "drowsiness, changes in mood and mental clouding." It goes on to state, "Morphine" (and heroin etc.) "also produces mental clouding characterized by drowsiness, an inability to concentrate, difficulty in mentation, apathy, lessened physical activity, reduced visual acuity, and lethargy." In such a condition, a heroin user is hardly going to be able to rob anyone!
The problem develops when the user's fix begins to wear off and he realizes if he doesn't get another one he will begin suffering withdrawal symptoms which include such unpleasantries as uncontrollable shaking and vomiting. It is because of this effect coupled with the unnaturally high price of prohibited heroin that the addict must acquire vast sums of money, primarily through stealing. It is the high price of illegal heroin that causes an addict to rob, not the effects of the drug itself.
Previously quoted DEA figures show the wholesale cost of heroin in Europe in the last quarter of FY '74 to have been about 1 1/2 cents per average daily dose. Even allowing for inflation and retail markup, any addict should be able to support his habit for less than 50 cents per day. This is comparable to the cost of maintaining a cigarette smoking habit. Very few cigarette users have to indulge in wholesale robbery to afford their habit. Thus, by making herion illegal, we have put our lives in jeopardy and our property in danger twice as often as it would otherwise be. And we are spending additional billions on enforcement and court costs to maintain this condition! Therefore, on the level of cost-benefit, the forcible prohibition on heroin and other "hard" drugs should be discontinued.
On every level the verdict is the same. From any considered viewpoint, the laws making heroin etc. illegal are probably the costliest domestic error ever made in this country.
The libertarian alternative which could cut crime by 50% without raising taxes is obvious. THAT ALTERNATIVE IS TO DECRIMINALIZE HEROIN AND OTHER HARD DRUGS. According to statistics and common sense, this one simple action should stop the spread of heroin use and *if official figures are accurate* has the potential to CUT CRIME IN HALF!
This lobertartian solution to the crime problem becomes obvious when viewed in the proper context. But many vested interests, from some law enforcement agencies right up to organized crime, have good reason to oppose its implementation. And the proposal is somewhat shocking even, if not especially, to most well meaning people. In presenting this position to them, certain questions come up quite frequently. Perhaps our answers to some of them will help you make up your mind on this difficult issue.
QUESTION: Won't decriminalization and lower prices lead to more heroin use?
While it is possible a slight increase might occur at first, most indications are to the contrary. For example when prohibition was repealed, alcohol use didn't expand greatly. Of course, we have to be careful in drawing parallels here. Drinking to one degree or another has always been widely acceptable socially. Heroin use has not. It is also easier and less painful to take a drink than it is to take an injection. Airplane glue is always available cheaply, yet though it's supposed to be thrilling, few people avail themselves of the opportunity to sniff it. More to the point, the number of heroin users per capita in England declined slightly from one in 180,376 circa 1914 to about one in 185,960 circa 1972. (During the same period in the U.S. heroin users per capita increased from about one in 46,000 to about one in 800.)
Of course under conditions of decriminalization there would be more accurate statistics available to determine actual use. This might show more or less use than is calculated now. Even if use increased drastically, however, it would not affect non-users greatly since they would not be involved anymore in the tremendous costs and problems caused by prohibition. Those people who have decided to use heroin are using it now. In additioin, under present circumstances, people who WOULDN'T normally use heroin are being enticed into using it now.
QUESTION: Aren't your figures about a reduction of crime by one-half a little unrealistic?
Maybe. But the statistical basis for this projection is official government figures and probably the most accurate available. Perhaps, since there are so many unknown factors, decriminalization might not result in a full 50% rediction. And such a reduction would not be immediate since users would still have the habit of stealing. However the necessity of stealing large amounts would be gone overnight. No one new would be forced into stealing to support their habit. There would be extra police freed to concentrate on whatever stealing etc. remained. But suppose for the sake of argument, the estimate of 50% reduction is only half right, that would still mean a reduction of 1/4th, still a substantial reduction well worth the simple effort of repealing an ill-advised and counterproductive law.
QUESTION: But wouldn't most heroin users steal even if they didn't use heroin or even if they could get it at a reasonable price?
While in individual cases it is undoubtedly true that some addicts steal irrespective of their heroin habits, the facts indicate that for most heroin users this is not the case. Heroin is a central nervous system depressant. In general the type of person who uses heroin is the same type who uses other tranquilizers. These are people who are over-stimulated and want to relax and stay away from tension and excitement. Robbery and mugging are not soothing, relaxing activities.
The Las Vegas TASC Project treated heroin users by several different methods. By far the most successful mode of treatment was by thansfering their drug dependence from heroin to methadone, a longer lasting (and more powerful) narcotic. Methadone's main distinction is that since it is semi-legal, it can be provided cheaply to the addict, obviating his need to obtain heroin. (Counseling and other services are also rendered to the addict. But such counseling etc. has invariably failed without the transfer to methadone.) As a result TASC was able to report that as of March 1976 its 43 methadone clients, with an average previous arrest rate of 1 every 6.4 months went a combined total of 78 months without any arrests. Normally about 12 arrests could be expected in that time. Other methadone maintenence programs nation wide which have a wider statistical base, show that in fact once most heroin users lose the necessity of spending large sums on their addictions, they stop stealing. Since all addicts don't get caught --and for many other reasons-- this program cannot even begin to approach the effectiveness of decriminalization in removing the necessity for obtaining large sums.
QUESTION: HOW WOULD DECRIMINALIZATION AFFECT THE ADDICT?
In spite of popular mythology and according to accepted medical authority, pure heroin, other than its addicting quality, is a somewhat innocuous substance. That is, in its pure form, it is relatively harmless to the body unless taken in overdose quantities. [chief danger: killing dose is only twice effective dose--get correct terminology from PBofT] However, since it is illegal, the user rarely gets pure heroin. It is almost always "cut" (diluted) with one or more foreign substances. Often these substances are harmful. Also the addict doesn't know the true purity of the heroin he is buying and thus the possibility of an overdose is increased. No information is available to the addict as to the proper care and use of his paraphenalia (needle etc.) As a result, many deaths occur from contaminated needles, etc.
If heroin were decriminalized, the addict would be able to get a product of known strength and purity, thus eliminatiing the chance of poisoning and minimizing the chance of overdose. Information would also be available to permit him to learn about the proper care of his equipment, reducing the probability of infection and hepatitis, etc. If an addict maintains his drug level, he is more functional than an alcoholic. In fact, in the few experiments done with heroin maintenance (supplying an addict with the necessary level of heroin) users often returned to their useful, productive functions in society with no one the wiser as to their habit. Thus, decriminalization would permit some users to once again become productive members of society.
QUESTION: WOULDN'T DECRIMINALIZATION JUST MAKE IT EASIER FOR AN ADDICT TO GET HIS FIX?
Yes, it would. And the benefit of this to the rest of us would be a greatly reduced crime rate and an increased feeling of security.
QUESTION: WOULDN'T THIS DECREASE THE ADDICT'S INCENTIVE TO BE REHABILITATED?
Possibly. But most addicts don't have enough incentive anyway. And most programs for rehabilitation show almost no results. The only one that seems to work is the previously mentioned methadone maintenence approach. Those few with a strong desire to kick the habit can get effective help through such programs as Scientology's "Narc a non."
QUESTION: BUT HEROIN IS SO TERRIBLE, SHOULDN'T IT BE ILLEGAL?
Granted, heroin is a bad thing. But making it illegal only makes it worse. Statistics seem to indicate that because it is illegal, its use is spreading much faster than it would otherwise. Because it is illegal you are in twice as much danger of robbery and mugging. And because it is illegal the unfortunate person who has become an addict finds it even more difficult to survive. Thus the Harrison Act attempts to control heroin use by making it illegal; instead it tends to spread addiction and get innocent parties involved through an increased addiction rate and a double rate of robbery and mugging.
QUESTION: BUT SHOULDN'T HEROIN USE BE DISCOURAGED?
Undoubtedly it should. But just as with other matters of personal preference like cigarette smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, skydiving, taking too much aspirin or valium, sniffing glue, inhaling non-stick aerosol products or "shooting up" (injecting) peanut butter, if we are to retain our freedom, it must be discouraged by education and persuasion, not by force of law. Certainly, some people will continue to use heroin, just as some will continue to skydive, etc. But making such acts of personal preference illegal not only doesn't solve the problem, it often makes it worse while creating worse and completely new problems in the process. And if we were to outlaw everything that is dangerous, automobiles and motorcycles would be the first to go and bathtubs and stairways would not be far behind.
OBSERVATION: Heroin use will destroy the moral fiber of America-----if it isn't decriminalized.