The 5 Dumbest Drug Laws in America

From banning the sale of magazines to regulating chemistry equipment, local and state drug warriors mainline stupidity.


Local and state legislators have a long and storied history of overreacting to trends in drug consumption by quickly drafting and passing regulations and criminal laws meant to hinder access to illicit consumer goods. Historically, these laws — many of which transcend simply outlawing the sale and possession of illicit substances — have fueled the spread of black markets, incentivized the creation of dangerous drug substitutes, induced headaches for above-board businesses, and raised questions about Constitutional rights. Many of them make federal drug laws seem downright soft and/or reasonable. 

The ban on mixing energy and alcohol drinks that started in Michigan, moved to Washington state, and then became federal law is a good example of a disproportionate legislative response to a problem that's not nearly as severe or widespread as fearmongers claim. Unfortunately, it's just one silly law of many codified in criminal statutes across the country. This list doesn't cover every legislative transgression committed in the name of protecting us from ourselves, but it does highlight some of the most clueless, backward, and meddlesome drug laws in these United States.

5.) In Texas, it's illegal to buy or sell chemistry equipment without the state's permission 

In 1989, the Texas legislature amended its controlled substance statute to require anyone who "sells, transfers, furnishes, or purchases certain precursor chemicals or certain laboratory apparatus to be regulated by [the Department of Public Safety]."

This new regulatory burden on buyers and sellers of basic chemistry equipment (in a state that brags about not over-regulating) was meant to halt the production of methamphetamines. But the banned substances list didn't stop at chemicals used in meth. 

For instance: One of the "precursor substances" that you can't buy or sell without the state's permission is Diethyl malonate, a chemical that "occurs naturally in grapes and strawberries as a colourless liquid with an apple-like odour," and that is used to make perfume, artificial flavoring for candy, and vitamin B supplements. But because Diethyl malonate was once popular for use in sleeping pills, and can — like alcohol, aspirin, and water — kill you if you take too much of it, you can't buy it or sell it without a license.

In fact, most of the "precursor chemicals" that DPS regulates have been out of style for years. Ergotamine isn't often used to treat migraines anymore, much less make LSD. Piperidine was placed on the list due to its popularity in the 70s and 80s as an ingredient in PCP.

Even more egregious is the inclusion of basic glassware used in chemistry and homelabs, items like "a flask heater…an Erlenmeyer, two-neck, or single-neck flask…a round-bottom, Florence, thermometer, or filtering flask." These are all basic items in any home, middle school, or high school chemistry lab, yet buying them in the state of Texas requires you to enter your name into a government database; and selling those items means you have to open your records and your facilities to government inspections.

As for stopping the production and consumption of illicit substances? Forget about it. You can buy Mexico meth for cheap in Texas, or you can make it at home using the incredibly volatile (and expensive to taxpayers) shake-and-bake method; no high tech chemistry equipment required.

4.) In California, taxes on dispensaries pay for raids on dispensaries 

Elected officials aren't the only people capable of making crappy drug policy. The public is pretty good at it, too. In 2011, voters in Vallejo, California approved Measure C, a ballot initiative that allows the city to tax dispensaries "up to 10% of their gross receipts plus a base tax of $500 (adjusted yearly for changes in the Consumer Price Index) for conducting business within the City."

But while Measure C gave Vallejo the power to tax dispensaries, it didn't legalize them within city limits. "Measure C does not legalize, authorize, regulate or otherwise permit medical or recreational marijuana businesses in Vallejo," reads an FAQ published by the city in the leadup to the vote on the measure. "Measure C would create a local revenue source by allowing the City Council to impose a business license tax on marijuana businesses. Measure C does not set up a regulatory structure for marijuana businesses and they would still be required to comply with the Vallejo Municipal Code to lawfully operate within the City."

Because Measure C did not legalize the sale of marijuana in Vallejo, dispensary taxes were essentially being used (in conjunction with federal funds) to pay for dispensary raids. As of August of this year, Vallejo police–in conjunction with the DEA–had shut down almost all of Vallejo's two dozen medical marijuana dispensaries. While Measure C was seen as a step in the right direction, it was a nail in the dispensary industry's coffin — and the industry had to pay for it.  

3.) In Louisianna, it's illegal for minors to buy magazines that talk about drugs

The Internet — from HighTimes.com to Youtube — can tell you everything you need to know about marijuana, from rolling the perfect cross joint to rigging the ideal indoor grow operation. Considering the wealth of information available online, you'd think Louisiana would have gotten rid of its law against allowing young people to buy publications about marijuana. You'd be wrong. 

A Louisiana law passed in 1977 (four years after the founding of High Times magazine) prohibits the "sale, distribution or making available to minors publications encouraging, advocating, or facilitating the illegal use of controlled dangerous substances."

In full, the law reads as follow:

No person shall sell, distribute or make available to a person under eighteen years of age any publication which has as its dominant theme articles or a substantial number of advertisements encouraging, advocating, or facilitating the illegal use of any substance classified as a controlled dangerous substance pursuant to Title 40 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes of 1950. 

No employee acting within the course and scope of his employment and who has no proprietary interest in the business shall be guilty of a violation of this Section unless he has actual knowledge of the contents of the publication.  

Whoever violates this Section shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned for not more than six months, or both.  

That a law like this one exists in the Internet age is pretty silly, but it was equally awful 10, 20, and 30 years ago, when print was the only way to get an alternative take on our ruinous drug war. There's also something hypocritical about excluding publications that advertise and encourage the consumption of other arguably dangerous drugs, like alcohol and tobacco.

2.) In Florida, every drug user is a potential drug trafficker 

While the above laws highlight just how pointless it is to try and legislate away victimless crimes, Florida is hard at work showing how easy it is to ruin the lives of thousands of people with malicious legislation.

Florida's legislature has passed the most egregious mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug possession in the country. A handful of just about any drug can get you at least three years behind bars. For some drugs, a literal handful will get you decades behind bars. Take, for instance, the laws around prescription painkillers. Four grams of any opioid is enough for a mandatory three years behind bars. How much is four grams?

"To put this in perspective, know that there are four hundred and fifty four grams in a pound," advises the Hessinger and Kilfin firm. "Less than a handful of pills can result in a mandatory three year prison sentence. TWENTY EIGHT GRAMS or more will result in a mandatory twenty five year sentence and a half million dollar fine."

The sentence for pretty much any drug is harsh on purpose. Florida law states:

For the purpose of clarifying legislative intent regarding the weighing of a mixture containing a controlled substance described in this section, the weight of the controlled substance is the total weight of the mixture, including the controlled substance and any other substance in the mixture. If there is more than one mixture containing the same controlled substance, the weight of the controlled substance is calculated by aggregating the total weight of each mixture.

So, instead of weighing the active ingredient of a drug, Florida just weighs the full mixture and whatever's containing it.

As Families Against Mandatory Minimum's Greg Newburn told Reason earlier this month:

"Under that language, if you hand me a 12-ounce can of Coke, but just before you hand it to me you mix 1 gram of cocaine into the liquid, then you call the cops and tell them I'm drinking cocaine-laced Coca-Cola, I face a 7-year mandatory minimum for 'trafficking in cocaine' (more than 200 grams but less than 400 grams). And since Florida removed the mens rea requirement, the state doesn't even need to prove I knew the cocaine was in the can. I can present my lack of knowledge as an affirmative defense, but the jury instructions permit a jury to presume the defendant had knowledge of the illegal substance based solely on the possession."

Florida is not alone in imposing awful mandatory minimums for drug users, but its laws are the worst in the country.

1.) In New York, following a police officer's instructions can lead to criminal charges  

In New York, possession of small amounts of pot has been decriminalized, but it's still a crime to take the pot out of your pocket and wave it around like you just don't care. That distinction — between possession and display — seems pretty simple on its face. How hard could it be to keep your weed out of view? Not hard at all, unless an officer with the NYPD stops you as part of the city's stop-and-frisk policy, and asks you to empty out your trousers. In that case, the simple act of pulling out your weed for inspection qualifies as display. According to The New York Times, this Kafkaesque paradox results in "tens of thousands of young black and Latino men who are stopped by the New York City police for other reasons…being charged with a crime" after emptying their pockets.  

While NYPD Chief Ray Kelly instructed his officers earlier this year to stop arresting people for doing what they're told, arrests for pot display haven't fallen all that much. In June, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo argued for extending marijuana decriminalization to include display (though not smoking). The proposal was endorsed by law enforcement leaders across New York City, civil and human rights groups, and drug policy reformers; but at 11th hour, Republicans in Albany declared they'd have no truck with further liberalizing New York's pot laws.