Responsible use not a foundation for policy

Oops. I was wrong in yesterday’s post about responsible drug use. Jonathon Caulkins is from RAND, not Cato, and has posted a response to yesterday’s Erowid post on responsible drug use at Cato Unbound. He starts off by identifying and challenging one of the underlying values:

The Erowids assert that “Modern humans must learn how to relate to psychoactives responsibly, treating them with respect and awareness, working to minimize harms and maximize benefits, and integrating use into a healthy, enjoyable, and productive life.” Most of that assertion is innocuous. Psychoactives are ubiquitous when the term is used so broadly as to include even caffeine. However some are quite dangerous, so as a class they should certainly be treated with respect. And working to minimize harms and maximize benefits is unobjectionable in most endeavors.

What distinguishes the Erowids is their assertion that modern humans must integrate psychoactive use into life. Apparently from their perspective, choosing abstinence, at either the individual or societal level, is inherently inconsistent with being modern.

Denying or denigrating an individual’s right to choose temperance is an extreme position not worth engaging.

He goes on to make the case for prohibition without being supportive of American prohibition:

While avoiding a full rehash of the by-now dull legalization debate, two points bear mention. First, American drug policy is easy to criticize as intrusive, ineffective, and mean-spirited. However, it does not follow that prohibition is necessarily a bad policy. Essentially every country in the world prohibits production and distribution of cocaine, crack, heroin, and methamphetamines for recreational use, even legalizers’ poster child, the Netherlands. Most affluent industrialized countries take a far less aggressive approach to their prohibitions than the United States does, yet they maintain prohibitions nonetheless. The problems with America’s prohibition stem primarily from particulars of its implementation, not from prohibition per se.

Second, the challenge is not in criticizing prohibition, but designing something better. To their credit, the Erowids offer specific suggestions in their “Fundamentals of Responsible Psychoactive Use.” I am skeptical that they constitute a practical framework for social policy, as distinct from being useful guidelines for individuals who choose to use psychoactive drugs. Note, though, that nothing about American alcohol policy precludes application of these principles. So if their advocates are successful in taming the rather considerable problems with legal alcohol, then I would take more seriously claims about the Principles’ universal efficacy with respect to all psychoactives, including, say, methamphetamine.

He then goes on to distill the issue to its most fundamental question:

What are the risks of trying the big four illegal drugs (marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine—including crack—and heroin)? Statistics vary by drug, age of first use, and other variables, but among the myriad patterns of drug use, four are common: (1) limited experimentation, (2) ongoing controlled use, (3) ongoing use that is mostly controlled but punctuated by occasional abuse, and (4) escalation to dependent use.
To grossly simplify, about half of people who try illegal drugs stop with experimentation, and one in six end up in each of the other three categories (controlled use without and with occasional abuse and dependence). The proportions are slightly more favorable for those who only try cannabis, but less dramatically so than one might expect. At any given time, five times more people are dependent on marijuana than are incarcerated for drug-law violations, and the lifetime risk of abuse or dependence for cannabis use is on the order of one in ten.[1]

No one knows how legalization would change these probabilities. The Erowids might argue the risks would go down, particularly if their principles were applied. I would argue the opposite. The drugs would be cheaper, more easily available, and (likely) marketed aggressively; and their use would be less costly in terms of risk of arrest, loss of employment, and social approbation. In short, there would be fewer external constraints on use, and more frequent and heavier use increases the risk of dependence. For the sake of argument, let’s stick with the figure of a one-in-six risk that trying a drug will lead to dependence and associated harms.

Does society have a right to “protect” its citizens from a one-in-six risk of dependence, even though that “protection” denies five times as many people legal access to something pleasurable?