Libertarians, Drugs, and My View

Libertarians, Drugs, and My Views by Richard L. Peterson, PhD July 28,2010


            Libertarians, in general, believe that the government has no business regulating what people do to themselves as long as their actions are not harming others. Thus, in general, Libertarians are opposed to the war on drugs. They note that it should be the individual's, not governments, responsibility to ensure that individuals do not harm themselves. They also note that the “war on drugs” is extremely expensive, costing taxpayers possibly $50 billion or more each year and accounting for half or more of Federal prison inmates, at great public expense. In spite of the high rate of expenditure and incarceration, it appears that much of the money must be wasted as people who want to obtain mind-altering drugs are still able to do so. Consequently, the effectiveness of large expenditures incurred in the present  “war on drugs” must be questioned.

            In addition to being largely ineffective, the “war on drugs”  has generated substantial amounts of income for illegal criminal operations and has led to the corruption of public officials and law enforcement personnel. That result is highly undesirable, not only because it is undesirable whenever public officials follow their own interests and do not faithfully execute the duties with which they have been charged, but  also because the corruption of public officials causes the public to lose faith in the value and performance of their government. It is also undesirable because, once formed, criminal organizations, such as the Mafia, do not go away quietly—as we learned after our nation's disastrous experience with alcohol prohibition after the 18th Amendment was passed and later repealed by the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

            The war on drugs has also been undesirable because it has led to the erosion of civil liberties and of protections guaranteed U.S. citizens by the U.S. Constitution. The news frequently carries reports and photos of SWAT teams breaking and entering into individual's homes in order to investigate and regulate individuals' private activities. Although such transgressions usually are technically legal in that they occur only after a warrant has been issued, they tend to intimidate the law abiding citizens with excessive shows of governmental force, and not infrequently are misdirected. People have even been killed trying to defend their homes against unexpected incursions. This has happened in spite of the admonition given in the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that; “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

            More importantly, local law enforcement agencies have frequently violated U.S citizens' constitutional protections by “confiscating” private property that has, allegedly, been used to facilitate drug trades. The U.S. Declaration of Independence said that our Creator had granted people the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—with the understanding that property ownership was essential to the pursuit of happiness. The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expanded this principle by saying, “nor shall any deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Nonetheless, under “confiscation” procedures, a person's property can be taken by law enforcement authorities merely upon the suspicion that it may have been used, or might be used, in some illegal manner, such as in the drug trade, and the owner of the property then must bear considerable effort and expense to sue to prove that his or her property is innocent of all charges before it can be reclaimed. Since most people are unable to spare the time or expense to prove the innocence of their confiscated property, local law enforcement authorities have not infrequently abused the “confiscation” process to obtain and/or sell individuals' property that they covet or that potentially has a high market value and can generate income to help fund their operations. Citizens have often foolishly allowed the confiscation process to continue since in that way they expect to have to pay lower taxes to fund their local law enforcement activities. All this has occurred in spite of the fact that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution explicitly says “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law;”

            Because of the abuses of Constitutional rights that have occurred under the aegis of the “war on drugs,” its tendency to promote corruption of public officials, its expense, and its ineffectiveness, most Libertarians oppose the war on drugs. That does not mean that Libertarians think people should take mind-altering drugs.

            Personally, I think that the consumption of mind altering drugs and substances is a very bad idea. Humans are distinctive creatures because they have excellent brains and cognitive awareness. To me, it makes no sense to alter and take a chance upon destroying the physical attribute, a brain, that makes people distinctively human.

            My personal views on mind altering drugs have been shaped by what I have learned from three MDs specializing in the human brain whom I know well. John Turnbow is a pediatric neurologist, My son is a board certified Psychiatrist who frequently consults in the California prison system. My best friend from high school, Gary, was the head of the University of Hawaii's Psychiatry Department and also the Head of the Hawaii VA 's Psychiatry Hospital.

            From Dr. Turnbow, I learned that most people are not addiction prone. Only around 5% tend to become easily addicted to mind altering substances, provided that they avoid physical dependency. Thus, it is possible for most people to learn that mind altering substances are harmful and to avoid them.

            From Gary, I learned that he had had patients in the VA hospital who had taken heavy doses of marijuana for many (15 or 20) years and whom he was unable to help. He said they had suffered memory loss and had decreased motivation, and he posited that they had ingested some chemicals that had entered their brains that did harm and could not be easily eliminated. When I related this story to others as a cautionary tale about possible adverse effects of long-term heavy marijuana usage, they noted that people who took such heavy amounts of marijuana had probably ingested other drugs as well, that may have contributed to the patients' cognitive and motivational defects. At any rate, long term heavy alcohol use is known to cause brain damage as well, and that is legal.

            My son is not sure about Marijuana. He cannot point to specific problems related to it as with other drugs, but he suspects it causes motivational problems and, in general, does not think it is a good idea for a person to take it. The mind-altering substances he really dislikes are those where he can see that prisoners' brains have been damaged by their drug use.

            My son particularly dislikes methadone.  He has seen MRI brain scans of prisoners who have taken methadone for a while and the MRIs show substantial brain damage of a particularly deleterious nature. If one has seen photos, often mug shots, of long term meth users, one is quick to notice that they have very bad teeth. My son explained that their Meth use had caused the blood vessels that nourished their teeth to degenerate, so their gums receded and their teeth decayed or fell out. What he said the photos did not show is that the blood vessels above their teeth also deteriorated. This showed up on the MRI brain scans, where holes occurred in their brains. Of particular concern was that the brain damage occurred in individual's prefrontal cortex area. A person's prefrontal cortex is a major judgement center, that allows people to judge potential consequences of their actions before they act upon their impulses. When the prefrontal cortex is undeveloped (as it typically is in teenagers, since it typically is not fully developed until people are in their early 20s) people are more prone to engaging in impulsive and ill-thought -out behaviors. Thus, my son felt that part of the explanation for some inmates criminal behavior was because they had damaged their prefontal cortexes due to methadone use, and therefore were more prone to engage in impulsive, criminal behaviors.

            I also have observed people who appeared to be otherwise intelligent, but had lost jobs or experienced other financial hardships because they could not keep their impulses under control. I initially concluded that short-sighted people often suffered economically because of their short-sighted behavior. I concluded that the inability to plan ahead and use foresight was more deleterious to an individual's subsequent economic success in life than a lack of economic opportunity—as some of the people I observed had initially held good jobs. In retrospect, I believe that some of the people I observed with such deficiencies had been meth users, and that may have been what impaired their judgement and subsequently caused them to suffer economically. Even if they did not engage in criminal behavior, their impulsiveness and lack of self-control had caused them to suffer economically.

            While methadone is a banned drug, people still take them. However, I would hope that fewer people would be inclined to do so if they were shown MRI views of the missing parts of heavy users' brains on TV or if they heard tales of how heavy users had suffered economically after taking such drugs.

            Unfortunately, my son has told me that methadone is not the only mind-affecting and consciousness altering chemicals that have altered the brains of prisoners he has observed. Heavy cocaine users have impaired their abilities to experience normal emotions when they are not on the chemical, and their responsiveness to the chemical stimulant continually deteriorates, causing them to desire ever increasing doses, or other forms of stimulants. This occurs because the repetitive use of cocaine interferes with their production and processing of various chemical reactions in their brains. The degree to which the brain can regenerate its normal state if the drug use is stopped  is not known with certainty.

            Other substances cause even more evidence of physical changes in the brain—many of which are irreversible.  People who have sniffed clue or gasoline show extensive brain damage on their MRI brain scans. Thus, even non-controlled substances may be implicated in damaging peoples' brains and facilitating their tendencies to engage in subsequent criminal behaviors.

            Thus, it seems to me that rather than try to ban all substances that might damage a person's brain if inappropriately used (society would have a hard time if all gasoline was banned because some people inappropriately sniffed it), it is better to try to educate people that they need to protect their brains from harm so they can hold a good job and function appropriately as human beings. A public relations campaign that showed MRIs of people who had experienced brain damage from sniffing or taking various substances or drugs, might prove more effective than force in preventing substance abuse. Such a campaign might be particularly effective if it was accompanied with the testimony of people who had suffered in their lives because they had abused substances and had damaged their brains, their memories, their motivation, or their self-control as a result.

            The main problem with an education campaign is that teenagers think they are immortal and nothing can harm them. Because they typically do not have fully developed prefrontal cortexes at that age, they are susceptible to impulsive behavior. Thus, I would advocate criminalizing mind-altering illegal drug dealing and distribution to people who are not of legal age (at least 21). The dealers should be prosecuted; the users should be educated about the potential damage they are doing to themselves. Since a small percentage of young people might become drug addicted before they knew better and could exercise self-control, they need to be protected from their own impulses—which is why dealers who distribute drugs to them should be prosecuted, just as other people who try to corrupt our youth are prosecuted, often harshly.

            In addition to teenagers, another class of potential drug abusers consists of people who are latently suicidal. Almost everyone knows that mind altering drugs are bad for them. Similarly, almost everyone knows that drinking alcohol to excess can lead to fatal accidents, long-term disabilities, or even short-term death. Yet people still take drugs and drink alcohol to excess at times. People who drink to excess may often do so because they are depressed (just listen to country songs and you may hear many reasons why a person might try to lose themselves in a bottle). People who take mind altering drugs may also be trying to blot out some depressing thoughts. Thus, I would advocate that mind-altering drugs be dispensed medicinally, possibly through government authorized dispensaries, at low cost. At that point a person could be assessed for depression, addiction, or other psychological problems when applying for the drugs, and could be directed to get appropriate help along with the drugs. Low cost dispensing of drugs to people with a need would eliminate high cost street drugs, gangs, and the attendant corruption and crime. It also would take away the “forbidden nature” appeal of drugs to young people and would recognize that people who were drug dependent often suffered from some other problems that possibly could be resolved peaceably before the individual showed up in jail or a hospital.



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