Drug Legalization

Should All Drugs Be Legal? 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.

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, as the debaters each convinced 9.76 percent of the audience to come over to their side. 

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.

The Soho Forum, which is sponsored by the Reason Foundation, is a monthly debate series at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan's East Village.

Produced by John Osterhoudt.

Photo credit: Brett Raney

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    1. Probably some legitimate reasons for restricting antibiotics. Their uncontrolled use south of the border is what gave us antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis.

      As for other drugs – if people want to have heart attacks or burn their brains out – fine. Just don’t expect someone else to pay for it. So you come into an Emergency Room, ODed on meth, or someone calls an ambulance because you took too much fentanyl – you don’t get treatement without cash or proof of insurance.

  1. As far as driving impaired, I would ask “Are you driving recklessly, swerving, crossing lanes?” If so than yes, you should be charged with reckless op. If not then any arbitrary measurement of intoxication should be thrown out of court.

    1. We already err on the side of giving benefit of the doubt to drivers. Kill a pedestrian and there is no assumption of de facto reckless. Only some other measure of intoxicated or negligence can lead to a charge of vehicular manslaughter.

      1. The penalties are incredibly harsh for driving with a 0.08 BAC, even if you’re obeying all traffic laws perfectly and driving with better skill and safety than millions of people on the road ever do. Maybe it should be that way, but IDK.

        1. The BAC tests are inherently flawed. Joe sixpack can probably function just fine at .12 BAC, but Tillie Teatotaller may be smashed at .06.
          A better test would be reaction testing. Not only would it weed out those too drunk to operate a vehicle safely, but those who are cold-stone-sober but unable to operate a vehicle safely. Like your 92-year-old grandfather.
          (I was once nearly killed by a driver who decided she needed my lane more than I did. I thought her driving looked impaired, so I circled back to check on her. Turns out she was 91. She told me that I didn’t have to worry about her running my motorcycle off the road again, since she was moving to Texas in a few days! [As if the people of Texas need THAT!]

  2. Not only should all drugs be legal, but they should be provided free, at selected centers far from civilization. Crime driven by drug prohibition will vanish, as will large scale drug abuse.

    1. Criminals will move to new endeavors and drug abuse will continue but then we can help the addicted instead of arresting the addicted and criminals will be arrested for real crimes

      1. But Meh Cages.

      2. why do you think law enforcement now focuses on human trafficking? the easy money in pot prohibition is going away.

      3. “…but then we can help the addicted instead of arresting the addicted…”

        By what reason do you think they need ‘our’ help? They have made choices regarding their lives; it is none of “our’ business.
        If you choose to be a busy-body, help yourself, but I’m not the mouse in your pocket making out ‘our’.

    2. “…they should be provided free, at selected centers far from civilization. Crime driven by drug prohibition will vanish…”

      As soon as you put in a limiter, free BUT at selected areas far from civilization you just created a black market.

      Not everyone will want to travel to the a place “far from civilization” to do their free drugs. Some people that do drugs also have jobs and cannot just be out in the sticks and then driving back, less you want more impaired driving.

      You might want to think about your idea a bit more.

      1. No, I think it will achieve at least 95% success, since the hard core addict types will not be able to resist free unlimited supplies. And if Shellenberger is right about addicts among the homeless, this will also take care of much of that problem, too.

        Those who can use and function, both now and then, are not the problem. And can probably afford free-market prices.

  3. If you are going to all legalize drugs, you have to reform the tort system, or else some enterprising plaintiffs’ lawyers are going to bankrupt the manufacturers for “manipulating the dose” (i.e. quality control) of the active agent.

    And then when no legitimate manufacturer can sell mind-altering drugs, the black market will step in and we’ll be right back where we are right now.

    1. But most overdoses are accidental now, with poor quality control on the products and no legal recourse in the courts. Legalizing will make the products safer.

      Legitimate manufacturers sell plenty of mind-altering substances today, and deliver them safely.

  4. Wait – When did NYT Liberal ideology start pushing for drug controls? Must have been about the time the right started letting their moral code work on a personal instead of a socialized basis.

    Is liberal ideology nothing more than just a rebellion against whatever the right supports or what?

    1. Yep, a market-branded cycle of mutual rejection.

    2. “”””When did NYT Liberal ideology start pushing for drug controls?””

      Public health.

      Some advocates of public health that I have spoke, all MDs, have supported restricting things that cause bigger issues down the road. One example given to me is that someone with diabetes not compliant with medications or diets will end up cost more in medical care when they need a toe, foot, or leg amputated and we all end up paying. So you need to force compliance or nudge them away from behavior that cause harm in the long term and costing the public more money in the end. Bloomberg’s soda ban was along this line of thinking. Allowing drug use now just causes more health problems down the road so it should not be allowed.

      1. nah, they just like banning stuff. they have no problem with spending more on everything.

  5. For the USA, the Controlled Substances Act is an unconstitutional ban on drugs and unconstitutionally gives the federal government huge control over intrastate drug manufacturing, sales, and use.

    Americans knew that you needed a Constitutional amendment to ban things federally. Just ask the 18th Amendment.

    1. Unsurprisingly, the biggest power grab with respect to drugs by the Feds came during FDR’s administration, with The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act of 1938, when the FDA took control of *all* drugs, not just the ones that get you stoned that Reason champions.

      Isn’t it peculiar that all this “muh freedom” and “muh free markets” of Reason never extends to prescription drug sales, with 360+ billion in sales powered by government enabled rent seeking.

      I wonder how much the AMA makes per year for selling the permission slips to purchase those drugs.

      1. +100; Last I googled it was around $1M(as in million) fee for the FDC & AMA to get their seal of approval.

    2. Yup. Unfortunately, Angel Raich’s lawyers failed to bring up the comparison with alcohol prohibition and the 18th Amendment. I wonder if the results might have been different if they had.

    3. US Supreme Court sez “Wickard v Filburn” bitches

    4. Yeah, that was before the administrative state that Wilson spawned really found its footing under FDR. The twin spikes of the nascent drug war and the New Deal battered the hell out of previous norms and stretched the Commerce Clause beyond its breaking point.

  6. Decriminalized. Some drugs of low toxicity like pot should be legalized.

    1. There’s a strong argument that, despite good intentions, decriminalization is the worst of both worlds. The part about leaving the market in the hands of criminals is true, but the other part – not having penalties to ‘dissuade “bad” behavior’ isn’t very convincing. Oh, and of course the state would miss out on the tax revenue they so richly deserve…

      1. I do not accept bad behavior as a factor. It is not a question of bad or good.

        What it does do is take law enforcement out of the algorithm.

      2. Governments love decrim. They dont have to have all those expensive court/plea bargin costs, just hand out a ticket and get their cut.

    2. What’s your legal theory for the distinction? And, related, have you bothered to consider how the power-mad in the establishment will weaponize these rules against the deplorable masses?

  7. Legalized for adults, just like alcohol. Let people make their own choices and bear the responsibility for those choices. Spend a fraction of the current Drug War budget on HONEST, scientifically-based education for children, with parental approval of course.

    With (easily) $1,000,000,000,000 pissed down the drain since the Nixon Administration, those who want drugs find them readily available and use them accordingly. Those who don’t, don’t. The Drug War is an utter failure…at least in its stated aims!

    As for the opioid ‘crisis’ (which took my sibling two years ago)? Study Postbellum America to see a real opiate crisis! There were countless addicted veterans – men steeped in violence. But Morphine and laudanum were essentially OTC then, and so there was exceedingly little crime associated with their acquisition and use.

    Malum in se crimes would, of course, remain criminalized. With a reduction of 80%+ of current Drug Warriors, police could redouble their efforts toward violent and property crimes. Of course, the Drug War Industrial Complex is responsible for a LOT of jobs, so expect fierce resistance from that quarter not for ‘moral’ reasons, but mere self-preservation.

    If Heroin and Cocaine were legalized tomorrow, I wouldn’t try them, and it’s exceedingly unlikely you would, either. It’s high time Americans take control of their own lives and worry about perfecting themselves, first and foremost.

    1. Why should parental permission be required to provide honest, scientifically-based education to children on any subject?

  8. Yes, they should. Banning drugs makes them more dangerous and brings the attendant black market crime, but does nothing to reduce consumption. Prohibitionists say they can’t legalize drugs because drugs are so dangerous, but being illegal makes them more dangerous and does nothing to reduce availability.

    In the 1920s, rival alcohol gangs shot each other and innocent bystanders to pieces, bribed corrupt law enforcement and judges, and delivered unsafe products. Now that alcohol is legal, how often do we see drive-bys between Coors, Miller, and Anheuser-Busch?

  9. “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?

    1. 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?

  10. What was the reason behind drugs staying illegal?

    Something about locking drug addicts up with rapists and killers to protect them from ruining their own lives… idk, was there any excuse that sounded rational?

    *I just started watching the video… Guess that’s the excuse.

  11. Suggest “The Forgotten Depression: 1921”, Jame Grant.
    Grant never suggests that a lack of government interference means a utopian outcome. Regarding the pain of the ’20-’21 depression, pg 3:
    “On the one hand, a year and a half is a very long time to any who suffered unemployment, bankruptcy or destitution. On the other, it is a great deal shorter than the 43 months of the Great Depression of 1929-33. I propose that constructive federal inaction contributed to the relatively satisfactory outcome.”
    Ending the drug war will not end in utopia. It will not make junkies go away, nor will it end deaths from ODs. It WILL keep the cops from killing innocent people from real or imagined (or contrived) reasons.
    The outcome is far, far better than what we have now, for the same reasons that the depression of ’20-’21 was far, far better than what Hoover and FDR delivered; get the government the fuck out of anyone’s life.

  12. Adults should have the right to do what they want when they’re on their own property as long as they’re not violating the rights of others.

    When you’re on someone else’s property, you can only do what the owner permits you to do (except leave).

    Likewise, when you’re on public property such as a road or park, you can only do what the custodial government permits you to do.

    Personally, I think it’s quite simple.

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  14. Wow, he actually used the “think of the children” argument. And he has the gall to claim that Sullum’s arguments are outdated, ha!

    It’s perplexing to me that he says these arguments have been made over and over, and yet he addresses only the tangential ones: potency, addiction, etc. But he fails to address the most important argument that advocates of freedom make – that the government doesn’t possess the moral right to govern how I use my own body. He makes some vague and suspect arguments about externalities, but he doesn’t really engage the argument that the government should not possess the ability to create drug laws in the first place.

    I can’t say that I’m surprised. To a NY liberal, that’s a ridiculous worldview, and one that doesn’t merit any consideration. But if you’re going to try and persuade libertarians that there’s a case against drugs, you’re going to first have to convince us that the government possesses the right to legislate your proposed solution.

    1. Man, while watching the questions this guy’s stance just gets weirder. He’s willing to completely decriminalize marijuana possession, but still wants to send regular non-trafficking users of other “more dangerous” (so he says) drugs to prison. But he still wants to keep all cannabis related production and commerce completely illegal, because . . . reasons? I guess he feels criminals need a way to earn a living too? Is Fight for 15 working on the black market?

      When Sullum asked him that question I thought he was just trying to give him a hard time, rhetorically, but apparently this guy’s views are just that dissonant. I mean, I get that he’s trying to argue that there are significant specific harms associated with certain drugs, but each time someone makes a legitimate comparison with a legal drug under his scheme, he swaps the paradigm under which he considers harm. When he’s talking about high addiction rates and long term health problems, and someone brings up tobacco, he switches to a discussion of “psychosis” that I have to say sounded a little more “reefer madness” than modern DSM. And then immediately concedes while doing so that alcohol can have the same sort of effect, but doesn’t seem to see any problem with that.

  15. Legalize everything, then tax it. Make it just like alcohol or cigarettes.

  16. MJ stocks tanking. Supply > demand.

  17. Naturally occurring drugs like pot, peyote, etc., can be legal. Drugs requiring chemicals or laboratory-like manufacturing like crack, cocaine, heroin etc., hell no!

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