Reason Podcast

Should Adults Be Allowed to Use Any Drug They Choose? A Soho Forum Debate

Reason's Jacob Sullum and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson debate eliminating laws that prohibit the use and sale of narcotics.


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Except for laws prohibiting the sale of drugs to minors and driving while impaired, all laws that penalize drug production, distribution, possession, and use should be abolished, along with special "sin" taxes on drugs.

That was the resolution of a public debate hosted by the Soho Forum in New York City on October 7, 2019. It featured Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine, and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson. Soho Forum Director Gene Epstein moderated.

Arguing for the affirmative was Sullum, who is the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use (2003) and For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health (1999). He was the 2004 recipient of the Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties. 

Berenson, who argued for the negative, is the author most recently of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence (2019). Berenson is also a best-selling spy novelist. His popular titles include The Deceivers, The Silent Man, and The Ghost War.

It was an Oxford-style debate, in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, and the side that gains the most ground is victorious. This was the Soho Forum's first tie, with each debater convincing exactly 9.76 percent of the audience to come over to his side.

The Soho Forum, which is sponsored by Reason, is a monthly debate series at the SubCulture theater in Manhattan's East Village. To watch video versions of Soho Forum Debates, go here.

Produced by John Osterhoudt.

Photo credit: Brett Raney.

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  1. The US Constitution gives no power to the federal government to ban products, which drugs are. An Amendment is required as the Prohibitionists knew and did with the 18th Amendment.

    This also applies to the states but it would easier for them to amend their respective state constitutions to ban certain drugs. Of course, the federal government could always regulate marijuana and other drugs because of interstate commerce. Since regulation is not prohibition the federal government could prevent states from banning drugs and simply treat them like every other commodity.

    1. Some day reason will advocate repealing the unconstitutional Controlled Substances Act to “legalize” drugs.

      or not since reason has become really shitty.

    2. Technically, the federal government does not ban drugs. Drugs are regulated in accordance with the Controlled Substances Act.

      Also, the Constitution grants whatever power SCOTUS says it does. Now, I am just explaining the realities and why the Constitution fails you.

      1. You poor new sock.

        Just like they “regulated” alcohol into being a prohibited substance.

        If you only knew what you are talking about.

        1. At least the Lefties are admitting that Lefties are Fascists.

      2. >>the Constitution grants whatever power SCOTUS says it does

        the game-changer for the Non-Elite

      3. Sad to have to break i to the kids, but “The law says whatever you can get the courts to say it says” is perhaps the most memorable line in Heinlein’s “The Star Beast.” That book and “The Rolling Stones” were probably the main drivers of TANSTAAFL libertarian political action that resulted in the formation of the LP.

    3. They can regulate the commerce not the substance.

      1. I should have made that more clear because I agree with you.

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  2. “Should Adults Be Allowed to Use Any Drug They Choose?”

    After all, they’re ADULTS and should be free to choose the poison of their choice.

    1. Adults? No. At 18 you go from a ward of your parents to a ward of the state. They’re only looking out for your well being.

      1. Funny how they seem to think they know my “well being” better than me. After all; I really don’t think they even know I exist.

  3. I dig how we’re having lofty conversations about the total end to all drug prohibition while vape juice is being panned just off camera.

    1. I’m still baffled that “legalize heroin? OK…but cigarettes are too icky to be allowed” is an apparent mindset.

      1. Heroin? I just wan’t to buy enough pseudoephedrine to get me through an allergy season.

        1. Pseudoephedrine is a good example. It is regulated in most states. It does not require a prescription.

          The difference between that and heroin is if the cops pull you over you won’t get arrested for having Sudafed in your glove box.

          Pot is not really legalized it is regulated to various levels and still illegal in many states.

          Because there are lots of drugs, most of them medical and not recreational, and there are various levels of decriminalization, regulation, and legalization it is hard to talk about as a single entity.

          I think the libertarian perspective should not focus on the constitution. The constitution does not form the foundation of libertarian philosophy.

          What is more important is the role of the state in individual liberty. What if any role should the state have in regulation of dangerous substances such as narcotics, or heart drugs for that matter?

          If you can’t make the case to just watch an episode on House MD decide you need amiodorone (heart drug with high potential toxicity) and buy it then the same goes for Fentanyl.

          Then should the government regulate the purity, do all the stuff the FDA does or just anything goes.

          1. In regards to drugs the government should only prosecute fraud. Purity and effectiveness should be handled by the insurance companies.

            1. The government is not in the business of prosecuting fraud except in big cases.

              There are plenty of high profile law firms doing that right now in civil suites. They advertise on TV. The big names like J&J are settling with states for millions every day.

              You can make a fortune as an attorney in those. Heck six wins in medical malpractice in one or two years can get you a mansion.

              Yup lawyers are the answer.

              Best deal is get out quick as you can and keep your head down in medicine.

              y’all chose this because of politics. I could care less about politics.

              The insurance companies as arbiters of quality. Don’t even go there unless you want a serious discussion. I know it might look that way from your end. Docs are looking for a way out. Every hospital or hospital system is trying to stay afloat.

              So you and I gonna end up with Bernie care or something like it.

              I am giving the real deal although I should not.

      2. I’m not entirely clear on your “too icky to be allowed” bit, but broadly speaking, there’s nothing wrong with treating drug use like having a penis.

        It’s fine to do it/have one, it’s fine to be proud of it and want to talk about it, fine to want to share it with consenting others privately, and still rude to whip it out in public.

        1. Ya.. Kind of like those “rude” a-holes that have a BBQ at the public park.

          If you don’t think a well funded propaganda machine pitched as “education” can manipulate the masses; I dare you to try and convince the public that a smoldering leaf is nothing to throw a temper-tantrum about.

          “Look at that disgusting inconsiderate kid over there burning his shoelace ends.. That’s filthy sick rotten stain of society. Lets go kick him out of the park”.

          1. You seem to be arguing that society at-large shouldn’t have a stigma against public drug use.

            Go for it, if that makes you happy.

            It’s also not relevant to what I said, which was providing an explanation for why “legalize heroin? OK…but cigarettes are too icky to be allowed” wasn’t that weird of a mindset.

            1. You seem to be arguing that society at-large doesn’t have an over-inflated stigma against smoking. Never-mind no one ever smokes too many cigarettes and looses the car keys, becomes belligerent or starts causing vehicle accidents.

              What’s this – a public sporting event serving alcohol? Actually you’re spot on. The mindset “too icky to be allowed” is the over-inflated stigma generated by years of propaganda and boy did the people byte.

  4. If I have to pay nothing and won’t have to even see you acting like a drugged out idiot, I do not care.

    But given that such things never occur, cannot say I’m on board.

    1. Public intoxication would still be illegal. By the way is there anything worse than a drunk? If we can tolerate that shit than we can handle anythimg.

      1. Potheads are, usually, more irritating. Less violent for sure…but FAR more annoying.

        Heroin addicts just tend to lay on the ground and twitch a lot.

        1. >Potheads are, usually, more irritating.

          story behind this? all my friends are awesome.

          1. Oh hell, I was engaged to a pot head and she was the most batshit insane carbon-based lifeform on the planet. Everybody she smoked with were just obnoxious shits.

            An average party:
            Stoner: “Dude, have you ever seen Cheech and Chong?”

            Me: “You asked me that an HOUR ago, and it is still yes. They just suck”

            Hours of that nonsense. Until somebody brought out magic mushrooms — which they almost invariably did — and several of them lost their damned minds on the stuff. They thought it was “amazing” that pot brownies didn’t impact me (beyond thinking that they are really terrible brownies). Dudes would try and sit on my lap repeatedly. I’d always have one or two girls who ALSO tried to — my lap isn’t that nice, I didn’t think — but it would then make my ex-fiancee hyper paranoid and pissy.

            For drunks, a simple “Dude, shut the fuck up” and most simply stumble away.

            1. sorry. and gracias, hilarious story. perfect.

            2. I think that has more to to with your fiancee and her friends then potheads in general.

              Just like alcohol, it affects different people differently. Learning what kind of drugs (including alcohol) you’re socially acceptable on, and which ones you’re a social antagonist on, is part of being a mature adult.

              1. Could be. Ex-fiancee was certifiable.

        2. Annoying or not, most potheads prefer to stay home so what do I care.

      2. Public intoxication is perfectly legal in many jurisdictions.

        1. It actually should be legal. I guess I meant causing trouble in public.

      3. “”Public intoxication would still be illegal.”‘

        I don’t see cops arresting people who are obviously nodding out on heroin. But I live in NYC.

      4. By the way is there anything worse than a drunk?

        Yes, teetotalers.

        1. “Son, never trust a man who doesn’t drink because he’s probably a self-righteous sort, a man who thinks he knows right from wrong all the time. Some of them are good men, but in the name of goodness, they cause most of the suffering in the world. They’re the judges, the meddlers. And, son, never trust a man who drinks but refuses to get drunk. They’re usually afraid of something deep down inside, either that they’re a coward or a fool or mean and violent. You can’t trust a man who’s afraid of himself.”

          ― James Crumley

      5. “Public intoxication would still be illegal.”

        You have obviously never been to New Orleans. It is encouraged there. It is just tolerated in certain places actually because it brings in the money.

    2. I guess that’s the narcissistic view of liberty.

      “I’m in favor of increasing your liberty only if it means I am not inconvenienced in the slightest”

      1. Why should I forfeit MY liberties so you can exercise yours?

        Want to shoot heroin? Knock yourself out. Don’t expect the tiniest bit of help out of me and don’t annoy me with your bullshit desire.

    3. Why would just seeing cause you to care?

  5. I have little problem with it as long as you are responsible for your actions.

    1. Just curious: Should legislators be responsible for their actions?

      1. the results? legislating isn’t generally a dangerous activity.

        1. what? It’s about the most dangerous activity there is

        2. Dangerous for who? Themselves? Rarely directly. For the people made criminals from their laws, or the losers/winners chosen by their laws? Quite dangerous indeed.

      2. “”Just curious: Should legislators be responsible for their actions?”‘

        They are held responsible for their actions on election day.

        1. i want to believe this but it seems to rarely take place

        2. Of course they are. Legislators who lose re-election bids are thrown in jail along with those who violated the laws they passed while in office.

          Sure they are.

          Oh, wait, actually they slide into lucrative gigs as lobbyists, consultants, TV commentators, yadda, yadda …

  6. “we’re asking all listeners to subscribe to each of our three new podcast streams ”

    Not libertarian enough for me to do that given @Reason ‘s support for coercive monopolies rather than a free market

  7. good lord. How is this even a question at a “libertarian” magazine?

  8. Reason’s Jacob Sullum and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson debate eliminating laws that prohibit the use and sale of narcotics.

    Not sure why, but for some reason, this pairing strikes me as the faux ‘both sides’ act that NPR puts on with E.J. Dione and David Brooks. Where you get both sides of the debate… country *and* western.

  9. How do you lose on the affirmative side? “All drug prohibition laws violate the NAP.” Done.

  10. In theory in an ideal society, yes.

    But if in an actual society, if we have to kick in to pay for an addict’s recovery and rehabilitation, then it gets a lot more complicated.

    1. so ban being forced to kick in and pay

    2. You already have to kick in to pay for enforcement and incarceration.

    3. I like how you seem to think drug laws are actually stopping people from using drugs, especially the worst users. Most opiate addicts are put on buprenorphine (Suboxone). Maybe methadone if they live near a clinic, but there are no clinics in rural areas. And most addicts are broke. Now, look up the cost of Suboxone versus the cost of morphine, methadone, or even pharmacy-grade heroin. Then add in the cost of multiple trips to rehab, hospital stays, ER visits, and ambulance rides for ODs, abscesses, endocarditis, testing/treatment for hep C and HIV. You’re paying for all of that, along with the cost of enforcement.

  11. “all laws that penalize drug production, distribution, possession, and use should be abolished”

    Has Reason finally come out against *prescription* drug laws?

    Or is that government enabled rent seeking still peachy keen with “Muh Free Market” Reason?

    I listened to Sullum’s 15 minute opening statement.

    Apparently the medical mafia’s government enabled rent seeking is still sacrosanct to Reason. Not a peep about prescription drugs from our pretend friends of freedom.

    Corporate Profits Uber Alles!

    Anyone know of an actual libertarian magazine that supports actual personal freedom to self medicate?

    1. Off the top of my head, the way full decriminalization would work with prescriptions is that the prescription is what you need if you want your insurance to pay for it. So you can still buy your whatever without the prescription, but it’ll be more expensive.

      Producing drugs still under patent would be fine, though the economics means it probably wouldn’t be a smart idea and wouldn’t threaten drug companies, much in the way that moonshine doesn’t threaten Coors.

      Selling drugs under patent would be a problem, but that’s because of patent law, not drug law.

      That’s my quick wag at how it could work, anyway.

      1. Just another thought. Medicine as a whole is a business and it is for profit. What they sell, among other things, is safety. Without that the rest is worthless. They will protect that just as any business would. The government has less to do with it than you think. It is the good housekeeping seal of approval.

      2. “without the prescription, but it’ll be more expensive”

        What I take costs nothing at world market prices. Some cost nothing even at US prices.

        Much of the price is having to jump through hoops with a Doctor to get a prescription.

        But the largest cost is doctors having neither the time nor inclination to go beyond their own comfort zone, or prescribe scheduled drugs. The largest cost is simply being prevented from helping yourself.

        1. “The largest cost is simply being prevented from helping yourself.”

          Go ahead please. The largest barrier is patients who do not want to help themselves and think medicine, stents, and pills are a panacea.

          Hey mine said avoid salt and those junk foods. I don’t, love pickles, peppers and corned beef, salami, hot dogs. So it is on me I know.

          Old joke.

          Patient says “so doc am I gonna die?”

          Doc says “well eventually”

          1. “Go ahead please. ”

            Can’t. A rent seeking mafia has legal control of my access to medicine.

        2. “ What I take costs nothing at world market prices.”

          Find me something that costs nothing.

        3. I’m skeptical of your theory, but I’m not adverse to testing it. The whole thing would be a great experiment in Free Market claims and theories.

    2. Actually the medical and pharmacy professions are largely self regulating. Both are highly vulnerable to lawsuits. The pharm companies want a lot of drugs to be Rx to avoid as much of that as possible.

      Hospitals and doctors are certified by medical organizations they staff and created. All the government does is put their stamp on it. Even Walgreens wants this as well both for financial reasons and to avoid you suing the pharmacy for giving you something contraindicated.

      It is you and I they are more afraid of than the government.

  12. Disclaimer: I am not, have never been, and will almost certainly never be, a libertarian or Libertarian.

    I’m broadly in favor of decriminalizing drugs, but I wouldn’t go this far. A lot of the NAP-violated ills of drugs aren’t because they’re illegal, they’re because those drugs either enable bad behavior (see “date rape” drugs), or the production is just dangerous (see exploding meth labs).

    There’s a couple of ways to handle this, but it all comes down allowing sale and production, but regulating it to avoid abuse.

    For example, we currently have regulations on storing industrial chemicals used in fertilizer, because stored improperly they have a habit of blowing up. Comparable regulations for meth labs would be acceptable to me. So “you have the right to do this, but you have a responsibility to contain the danger”.

    So overall, I want to decriminalize drugs. People shouldn’t be punished for possession, and people should broadly be free to buy drugs (needing a doctor’s permission to buy more of the same drug you’ve been taking daily for twenty years is absurd). But I’m not comfortable going as far as the not-quite anarchists want.

    1. I don’t actually mind those kind of prescriptions. I have a few like that. Docs are happy to refill them, they don’t get paid for that, and the pharmacy will call them for me. All the doc asks is to come in once a year or so which I would want anyway.

      For most things it is no big deal. The part you really need to hire the expert for is the initial diagnosis and getting you on a treatment that works. After that it is just maintaining and checking under the hood now and then.

    2. In Libertopia the regulation is “You can’t blow people up.” Safety would fall to the insurers. They don’t want to pay out anything so they’d keep a close eye on things. The first steam engines kept blowing up until the insurers said you have to build these better.

      1. Car insurance is required in basically every state of the union, but we still have folk that don’t get it. Do you know why?

        Because they have so little money, that they have basically nothing to lose even if they get their pants sued off. So it’s cheaper to ignore the fines, declare bankruptcy, whatever, then to pay insurance.

        So no. “Insurance” is a middle and upper class solution, among people who have something to lose.

    3. those drugs either enable bad behavior (see “date rape” drugs), or the production is just dangerous (see exploding meth labs)

      Sigh. Just sigh.

      1. Did you miss the disclaimer?

        And like it or not, that’s the sort of thing y’all will have to argue if you want to convince the majority of Americans (who are also not libertarians).

    4. “”but regulating it to avoid abuse.””

      How? If something is available they can abuse it. Do you want to punish people for abusing? Punish the doctors for prescribing to abusers? These are the questions that are being handle poorly now.

    5. If you could walk into a pharmacy and buy cheap amphetamines, and/or grow your own coca or khat, I don’t think exploding meth labs would be much of a concern. You can already buy the most commonly used date-rape drug in gas stations and grocery stores all over the country.

  13. duh, of course. and held liable for any harm you do while intoxicated.

  14. even though i don’t do drugs and don’t really have a high opinion of those who do regularly, yes.

    if doing drugs results in some adults committing actual crimes, then go after them. if some dude can stay home and snort mountains of cocaine and not bother anyone, i don’t particularly care

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  16. Of course they should. They should also be able to create, manufacture or grow, and sell them as well.

  17. One thing all here can probably agree on — If there is “limits” they don’t need to set by the federal government. Let communities govern themselves eh? I’d never live in CA – but since CA isn’t the federal government; I don’t have too.

    1. I can agree with that.

    2. As I recall, last year there was a big brou-ha-ha over whether it was constitutional for California to set production standards on eggs that were sold in California.

      IIRC, the argument was that because California is such a big market, farmers in other states would have to farm to California standards, because the loss of not having entry to that market was just too great.

      So I’m skeptical that this kind of “live and let live” mentality to state rights would survive increased federalism in this regard.

  18. Bear in mind that the postal monopoly Lysander Spooner sought to overthrow is the mechanism for the Comstock laws banning for a century so much as a line about the rhythm method or any other form of birth control or device. With Prohibition and the Harrison Act polluting Constitutional law, that monopoly became the means of coercion enabling officious prigs to open your mail. The Postmaster-General met frequently with Herbert Hoover before the Crash and during the collapse of the banking system during that Administration. Doctors all over the country were indicted for the felonies of prescribing whisky and dispensing painkillers & stimulants of German manufacture.

  19. This is one thing I agree on with YOU PEOPLE and I am a Very Conservative. If I am a free person. I have the right to do to myself as I see fit. All Drugs should be legalized. AND if it was up to me the legal Age for an adult would be raised to 21. Why? Because we have two kinds of adults in this county, Real ones that can by a firearm and alcohol and partial one that cannot. At 18 you are either an adult or not…

  20. duh, of course. and held liable for any harm you do while intoxicated.
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