Better Dead Than High

The morally dubious logic of drug warriors


For several years now, the drug naloxone has been used in emergency rooms and clinics to treat people who have overdosed on opium-derived drugs like heroin or morphine.

A new version of the drug is even more promising in that it can be administered outside of hospitals. The new version comes as a nasal spray, and retails for about $10.

Several dozen volunteers and government public health groups across the United States have begun distributing the packets to drug users, along with training on how to use it.

The results have been encouraging. One study looked at 16 organizations that have been distributing the kits, and found that they'd cumulatively trained 20,950 people to administer the drug, and successfully reversed 2,642 overdoses.

Perhaps you aren't fond of the idea of using tax dollars to help drug addicts avoid overdoses (and yes, some of the groups distributing the packets are taxpayer-subsidized). As a libertarian, I have mixed feelings.

But a $10 antidote is considerably preferable to a taxpayer-funded trip to the emergency room. The packets seem even more reasonable given that many states have been reluctant to pass "good Samaritan" laws, which shield people who call 911 to report overdoses from prosecution.

In any case, they certainly seem like a good idea for private groups and non-profits. It's a cost-effective way of saving lives.

But not everyone is happy. Dr. Bertha Madras, deputy director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, recently told National Public Radio she opposes the distribution programs because—and hold on to your hat for this one—she believes life-threatening overdoses are an important deterrent to drug use.

"Sometimes having an overdose, being in an emergency room, having that contact with a health care professional is enough to make a person snap into the reality of the situation and snap into having someone give them services," Madras said.

Madras' reaction offers a telling glimpse into the mind of a drug warrior.

We're told that certain drugs have to be prohibited because they're too dangerous. But we should also resist efforts to make them less dangerous because doing so might encourage drug use.

It's a bizarre argument until you consider the real motivation behind it: In truth, it's not so much about the harm some drugs do; it's about an absolute moral opposition to the use of some drugs.

Even if they were completely harmless, some people simply don't like the idea that we can ingest chemicals that make us feel good.

Over the years, drug warriors from former Drug Czar William Bennett to current Czar John Walters to recent DEA Administrator Karen Tandy have defended the efficacy of alcohol prohibition. All three have called the experiment a "success," and the notion that it failed a "myth."

They insist alcohol prohibition was a success because it reduced alcohol consumption. That assertion itself is debatable, but even assuming they're right, the argument itself is revealing.

Americans didn't pass prohibition because there's something inherently evil about alcohol. They passed it because of the alleged deleterious effects associated with drinking.

To call Prohibition a "success," you'd have to ignore the precipitous rise in homicides and other violent crime during the period; the rise in hospitalizations due to alcohol poisoning; the number of people blinded or killed by drinking toxic, black-market gin; the corrupting influence of Prohibition on government officials, from beat cops to the halls of Congress to Harding's attorney general; and the corresponding erosion of the rule of law.

Of course, the 18th Amendment was passed because prohibitionists convinced the country that their movement would alleviate many of these problems. But once Prohibition was in place—and still today among its defenders—it became not about the negative effects of alcohol, but about preventing people from drinking as an ends unto itself. Stop people from drinking, and we've won. Never mind that the cure was worse than the disease.

In December 2006, the ONDCP put out a triumphant press release celebrating a five-year decline in the use of illicit drugs among teens.

"There has been a substance abuse sea change among American teens," Walters said in the release. "They are getting the message that dangerous drugs damage their lives and limit their futures. We know that if people don't start using drugs during their teen years, they are very unlikely to go on to develop drug problems later in life."

But the following February, the Centers for Disease Control reported that deaths from drug overdoses rose nearly 70 percent over the previous five years.

Half the overdose deaths were attributable to cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs (the number of overdose deaths caused by marijuana—the drug most targeted by the ONDCP—remained at zero). One of the biggest increases (113%) came among aged 15-22, those same teenagers Walters was celebrating just three months earlier.

To look at those two figures and conclude that the drug war is moving in the right direction betrays a near-religious devotion to preventing recreational drug use, at any cost.

Prohibition advocates are again measuring success not on how well the drug war is preventing real, tangible harm, but simply on how effectively they're preventing people from getting high.

The naloxone story only reinforces in a tidier narrative what we've witnessed for the last 25 years—that drug warriors are willing to write off the loss of human life as collateral damage and engage in all sorts of morally dubious practices in order to prove their point.

That point, ironically enough, is that drug use is immoral and dangerous.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason. This article orginally appeared at FoxNews.com.