Opinion

Oregon legalizes self-destruction

Decriminalizing drugs won't make them any less harmful

Joe Biden won Oregon handily on election night. In normal years I would be inclined to suggest that President Trump's dejected supporters, of whom there are something like 900,000 in the state, should have a stiff drink or two. After Tuesday, though, I wonder whether any of them will just shoot heroin instead.

A ballot initiative in the Beaver State has "decriminalized" the possession of all drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy, peyote, LSD, and, yes, heroin. (An unrelated measure also legalized something called "psilocybin therapy," which is code for "eating 'shrooms with your doctor." Magic mushrooms were also decriminalized in Washington, D.C., a jurisdiction in which I would have assumed their use had been legal for decades, if not centuries.)

The amazing thing about this proposal is not the fact that it passed with a fairly sizable margin but that it has done so without arousing anything except faint murmurs of approval, even from supposed conservatives. So in Oregon you can shoot up whenever you want as long as you are willing to pay a $100 fine or make an appointment with a doctor who tells you to stop doing it? Excuse me, I thought this was America.

In polite journalistic circles, this kind of thing is supposed to be a no-brainer. Obviously we should just let people who want to stick needles in their arms and inject their bodies with horrifying substances do so. As a nation we might have decided last year that 18-year-olds cannot make the weighty decision to purchase tobacco products, but if the same legal voter wants to destroy himself with dangerous drugs, that's his inalienable right. It's also the height of compassion.

It should go without saying that measures like this one are (like the legalization of cannabis that continued apace on Tuesday night in four more states) a crisis for the rule of law. When we decide that certain statutes — in this case the Federal Controlled Substances Act — should not be enforced, we actually give vastly more power to law enforcement. At any moment a federal agent could arrest anyone in possession of a single joint. Billions of dollars in profits from the quasi-legal sale of cannabis could be lawfully seized. This is one right-wing attorney general away from being a constitutional crisis.

It is also folly to assume that decriminalization will lead to less drug use. (Even the wiz kids at Vox recently admitted that similar measures adopted in Portugal "seemed to lead to more lifetime drug use overall but less problematic use." Is there a non-problematic way to use heroin?) You cannot interdict supply without also interdicting demand, which is to say, by going after both dealers and users. In fact, the latter might be even more important than the former, which is the logic behind the so-called Nordic model for prostitution.

But I am less concerned about abstract legal questions than I am with the moral one of whether we should permit people to take drugs. This is not a philosophical issue for me. My paternal grandmother died 20 years ago after overdosing on heroin, a substance to which she was addicted for decades. Leaving her and others like her to their fate seems to me supremely cruel. What it tells those individuals is that their immiseration is of so little consequence to the authorities that it is not worth making any effort on their behalf. (Surrendering them to the addiction-rehabilitation industrial complex is the most deceitful clemency of all.)

Telling people that whether they want to use heroin is a choice they should make for themselves is not freedom. Nor is it charity. It is the brutal fulfillment of the promise of neoliberalism that state power will never be exercised except on behalf of maximizing individual utility. Just as "free markets" in practice means the freedom of payday lenders to rob the materially poor, "decriminalization" means the freedom of the poor in spirit to commit suicide.

U-S-A.

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