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On drug policy, "redistributing" death, and the right to be self-destructive

by Greg Swann


You've got to hand it to Joycelyn Elders. Like that loopy woman in the tent dress down at the laundromat, our Surgeon General says just exactly what she thinks. If it leaves those around her shaking their heads, well, so much the better. Like many moderns in Washington, she seems to have a perverse need to take invasive interest in other people's private lives, and I don't doubt for a minute that a dictatorship run by her would be particularly hellish, as dictatorships go. But she is nevertheless her own person, a distinct presence in a sea of oatmeal-colored camouflage.

She won't last long, of course. People who say what they think have never been popular in Washington, and they aren't very popular anywhere just now. We can predict with certainty that it won't be long before the 'private sector' discovers a previously unsuspected pressing need for the services of Joycelyn Elders. With deep regrets she will pass the torch along to someone of less prominent plumage, and all will be well with the republic.

Or something like that. But that's not what I'm talking about, in any case. For now, Elders is still employed by the 'public sector', and, therefore, the press is still dutifully transcribing her every loopy pronouncement. Rank has its privileges, and one of them, from the evidence, is making a spectacle of oneself in public.

The facts are these: speaking ex officio, Elders noted the connection between drug prohibition and crime and suggested that legalizing drugs could "markedly reduce our crime rate".

I won't fault her for stating a conclusion that was obvious in 1913. I won't beat on her for advocating an end to this scourge for unprincipled, mercenary, cowardly, utilitarian reasons. I won't even pick on her for her mincing, gutless, thoroughly academic style of speaking. However cravenly she said it, she alone, acting solely on the authority of her own mind, did say it. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man lacks depth perception, but what the heck: three cheers for Joycelyn Elders!

She should savor these, because I'm sure they are all the cheers she'll get. Her ultimate boss, President Clinton, immediately repudiated Elders' remarks. He said he is opposed to the legalization of drugs because of the experiences of his brother. Aside from suggesting, yet again, that the president either reasons very badly or pretends that he does, this remark should encourage all commuters to pray that First Brother Roger Clinton never gets in an automobile accident, lest our cars be outlawed.

Just by way of filling out the form: the prohibition on the use, possession, cultivation, distribution and sale of pharmacological substances is just another form of the larger crime of attempting to effect external control over a person's life. It would surely be a crime for me to snatch something out of your hand and lock you in the basement for having had it in your hand. That being so, it is likewise a crime for the state to do the same sorts of things. This is obvious, but I'm not talking about this, either.

Soon after our fearless leader kicked Elders out of polite society, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala chimed in with this sage remark: "Legalization is an open invitation for people to destroy their lives." And this, at last, is what I'm talking about.

It was once common to hear a highly principled libertarian argument that was used, ad hoc, by people involved in particular political battles. The name of the argument might be "The Right to be Stupidly Self-Destructive". No one ever called it by that name, of course. When you're fighting for the right to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, for instance, you don't want to call that behavior stupidly self-destructive. Instead, you want to say something about a right to establish a personal level of acceptable risk. Same thing, except that the one sails past people who don't think, and the other doesn't.

Now, obviously, I believe you have a right to be stupidly self-destructive. If you own your life - body, mind and spirit - and if no one else owns your life, and if it is always criminal to attempt to exert external control over your life, then, necessarily, your life is yours to manage as you choose. If that means acting in ways that will hasten your life's end, it is nevertheless your right to act in those ways.

But, of course, the state is taking a progressively larger 'stake' in your life. Your case for motorcycling without a helmet is much diminished if you have the nerve to expect the state to pick up the tab for an accident. And if you are forbidden to pay for your own health care, as you will be under HillaryCare, you no longer have a meaningful right to be stupidly self-destructive. We may expect that the helmetless motorcycle riders and the seatbeltless drivers will soon be joined by the bungee jumpers, hang-glider pilots, skydivers, beer drinkers and late-night ice cream eaters. They have no right to take such potentially-costly risks with the state property that is their bodies.

But when Shalala says, "Legalization is an open invitation for people to destroy their lives," she is not making the revolting chooser-of-the-slain economic argument we will hear with respect to dietary habits, vices or risky recreation. Instead, she is taking the deeply felt humanitarian position that life is good. The twin absurdities of the compulsory pursuit of the good and the state's advocacy of life as a value by resort to its armory are surely lost on her. What's important is that she herself believes that life is such a good thing that people must be forbidden the expression of any other point of view.

But, of course, people are also forbidden the full pursuit of life as a value.

In my darker moments, I think of the Shalalas of the world as would-be puppeteers, wishing for the power to push people around unendingly, and yet have those puppet-people always wear the same smiling faces. It's one thing to want to force people to do this or that, allegedly for their own good. It is quite another to take the blood occasioned by that force upon your own hands.

And I think that perhaps the refusal to countenance suicide and drug addiction owes to a view of these resorts as a reproach to the state. Life as a value is not the same as life-on-the-state's-terms. Suicide and drug use (and religious cultism, come to think of it) imply that life-on-the-state's-terms is not the ideal expression of life as a value.

And, darkest thought of all, I think that my own life would be improved if all those who want to destroy their lives would do so, today if possible. Despite the shrillness of this debate, not everyone who is affected by drug prohibition is self-destructive. Some of them are of no greater risk to themselves than is the social drinker. Some of them want the liberty to pursue alternative therapeutic regimens. Some of them are terminal cases and have nothing at all to lose and everything to gain. But some of them, surely, are self-destructive, and it's no great leap to suppose that, if drugs were one-tenth the price, some drug addicts would use ten times as much. But not for long. This is one of those questions about drug legalization that no one ever wants to face: are we prepared to watch these people die from toxic quantities of drugs? And, if not, are we prepared to live with the consequences - to them and to us - of refusing them drugs in the quantities they would otherwise seek? I would wish death on no one. But if by our policies we "redistribute" death from those who pursue it to those who do not, we are making war on justice in the name of its opposite.

And it is a cognizance of this last point - that drug prohibition serves mainly to victimize the innocent - that makes Elders' statement praiseworthy. She didn't make the principled argument - and the 'private sector' will find immediate need for her unique expertise on the very day that she dares to make the principled argument. But she made a principled argument, however badly, and she stood behind it with the courage she owns in abundance.

When the president counters with an anecdote, and when his hired gun can come up with nothing better than a homily about the humanitarian kindness of killing a man slowly, we are offered a telling glimpse of the intellectual vacuum that rules over every detail of our lives. These people have no philosophy but power, and we are damned lucky they're so very stupid. Drug addicts are notoriously easy to rule, and truly shrewd rulers would make drug use not illegal but compulsory...

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