Monday, April 20, 2009

4-20: What Is a Drug and How Ought We Deal with Them?

One of the comics last night had a great line. He said a friend told him that doing drugs would catch up with him, so he decided to start doing speed. 4-20 seems as good a time as any to think about drug policy.

We draw a distinction on the one hand between substances like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, and marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Caught in the middle are prescription drugs like ritalin that are used medicinally and recreationally. What exactly is a drug? The notion of a substance that changes bodily chemistry is surely too broad since all food does that. "Creates an abnormal state of the body" will get you bogged down in the loaded notion of normal -- athletes carbo-load, but surely spaghetti isn't a drug. If that doesn't deter you, antibiotics are drugs but they restore a normal equilibrium. Is there a way to draw this line? Is it meaningful or problematic if it remains blurry?

Once we have the in/out line determined, how ought we think of these substances? The libertarian line leaves the individual entirely in charge of what s/he chooses to put into his/her body. The utilitarian line looks at the consequences which in some cases is extreemly harmful to both the indiviual and the community, in others less so. This line, of course, does not coincide with our legal/illegal line at all. How should we draw that line? What is the difference between alcohol and, say, marijuana that justifies prohibition on one and not the other? Should they both be prohibited? Both legal? Is there a difference between these and "harder" substances and what is the strongest argument for prohibiting/legalizing any of them?