When The Post’s Michael Gerson wrote 750 words opposing drug legalization, Radley Balko responded with 4,500. Against my similarly brief take he unleashed only 2,700 (plus four embedded videos). So it’s nice to see that this verbal war among colleagues is de-escalating. Regardless, way down at the bottom of Balko’s latest avalanche, you’ll find the buried lead:
Personally, I believe that consenting adults should be free to choose what they do and don’t put into their bodies.
After all the statistical back and forth (in Balko’s piece and mine), this remark clarified a great deal. It reminded us that Balko’s analysis filters through a particular ideology that elevates “freedom of choice” – including the freedom to choose to use drugs so addictive that they destroy free will. People, like me, whose concept of freedom doesn’t recognize an inviolable right to pump yourself full of toxic and addictive substances, and who accept the resulting necessity to make difficult legal distinctions and policy tradeoffs, will always be at a disadvantage in debate with people like Balko: it’s not clear that any amount of data of any kind could ever shake his underlying beliefs.
To put it another way: for all the energy Balko and other libertarians devote to proving that drug prohibition causes more harm than drug use, this empirical claim is not actually essential to their moral view of the drug laws.
The disparate impact on minorities, mass incarceration, police militarization – all of these hardy perennials are just so much polemical ballast, because if Balko is serious about his principles, he would oppose drug laws even if they were enforced with perfect accuracy and penological moderation on a classless, racially monolithic society. If he’s serious, any and all drugs — from OxyContin to crystal meth — should be legal for over-18 “recreational” use and, I suppose, commercially available, including on-line. In Balko’s ideal world, I have to assume, manufacturers and retailers would have the right to advertise and otherwise encourage use – by offering free samples, say, or adjusting product content for maximum addictive effect, as our nation’s tobacco makers once freely did. Why not? We’re all consenting adults here.
Maybe I misunderstand Balko. Maybe he doesn’t embrace the fantasy of total drug deregulation. Maybe his notion of a good society includes sensible legal restraints on the use of dangerous addictive substances, for the sake of public health and public order. In that case, to paraphrase an old joke, all he and I are fussing about is price. But it would be nice if he’d take a break from explaining what he’s against to spell out — at length – exactly what he’s for.