Drug Abuse Felonization as Our National Economic Driver Harms Nations

Lifting economic productivity is fine. How we do it may not be. We may have criminalized recreational drug use partly to drive up the national economy, but it’s causing provinces of nations to fail, risking our national security, and it’s making some individuals less productive, and thus it’s backfiring.

The Overpressurized Family, the Dodge, and a Law

Many families demand that their children become doctors or lawyers. These are prestigious positions that pay unusually well and don’t need to be explained. A social study confirms that this is frequent for law and there’s likely a study about medicine. Good pay comes to doctors and lawyers but many are relatively unhappy. I think the finding is replicable. I think these two issues go together. Many people hold positions because they pay very well and satisfy other people’s desires, but otherwise wouldn’t want them. If half the people whose parents want them to become attorneys or physicians did so, we might well be short in other professions that a society also needs, but young children would hardly understand that on their own.

Being raised in childhood comes with both external and internal wants that gradually shade into internalized external wants and externalized internal wants, producing a range from the purely external to the purely internal. Being raised in childhood comes with both single-mindedness and a multiplicity of options that gradually shade into a multiplicity of options within single-mindedness and single-mindedness within a multiplicity of options, producing a range from the purely single-minded to the pure multiplicity of options. A result is that a sense of having control over one’s own choices ranges from person to person from a sense of having a relatively narrow range of choice, maybe almost none (e.g., “do the right thing”), to a sense of having a relatively wide range of choice, seemingly almost infinite (e.g., “you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it”).

High pressure to follow a specific career path and a specific life path preferred by parental families depends on ordering many more factors affecting the child’s future than in families oriented more toward the many opportunities from which a child can choose. The high-pressure families thus lower the younger family member’s perception of personal choice. The result is a restriction of the range of choice allowed to be exercised by the child until the narrowness of choice is internalized because the child-turned-adult does not know how to find and exercise a wide range of personal choice withut being disablingly conflicted about making choices. This may be beneficial; some people benefit from strong guidance sustained over lifetimes and society may benefit as well; military life provides a widely-used model. The youngest children in particular are receptive to it and benefit from it, because they see that grownups have power and they want some. But many others are held back by overly strict regimes, whether religious or secular.

The young person may reject the life or career path thereby laid out. That will likely test the wills of parents and youngster. The battles may be intense and many years long. The young person may conclude that the easiest solution is to escape and, more than that, to proceed as if there is no choice: to do something other than what’s planned because they can’t help it. That frustrates and angers the parents and, in order to succeed with the escape, often destroys access to the life and career paths the parents wanted for their child. The youngster may be glad of it but likely won’t think it and won’t admit it, really believing it can’t be helped. Instead, they’ll talk about wanting that good life, and often mean it (it might be nice to become a doctor without the twelve years of training), but they can’t stop doing what they are doing even though it means not becoming a doctor.

What they’re doing instead looks like not much of value. Taking heroin is doing something, as most of us would think twice about plunging a sharp dirty needle through our skin and pumping something bought on the street into a blood vessel, but the result is nodding off, and that’s the bottom line for the day, or years, and that’s not much. Some say it’s a way of being creative, maybe artistic, but to people who tried to raise a lawyer or a doctor, that’s no good. Someone else can make a movie and go bankrupt. Their child is on the path to becoming a doctor and had better stop smoking that stuff. Till they stop, they’re wasting their lives. They’re doing nothing. (They say it and they mean it.)

Society goes beyond family but is also the sum of its families and more. Our society and likely many others, both developed and developing, prioritize high success such as through well-paid careers over blowing years just having fun and doing not much. And that prioritization is understandable. The success tends to correlate with the society’s economic growth in a competitive world. Doctors help people be healthier and therefore economically more productive and lawyers help people conform to and take advantage of the law and therefore often to advance societal goals, and that makes it harder to argue against people becoming doctors and lawyers or in favor of spending years doing not much. Our society, like many others, has promulgated law to support economic growth by, among other steps, restricting use of drugs for merely recreational purposes.

The Light Touch and the Law’s Effects

Mild restrictions were tried. They still are. Alcohol comes with readable warnings about impairment. Drunks can be seen lying on streets as bad role models. Bars close at certain hours. The bar and grill is called that because, in some places and times, they were required to serve real food. (I thought so and, after a long walk and seeing such a place, large and very busy, I popped in to buy a sandwich. She gave me an odd look, but they did make me a cheese sandwich.) Some hotels won’t serve drinks unless you buy a club membership, which is because the county doesn’t allow serving drinks except to club members, a dry county. The police ticket drivers for driving while under the influence. Public debates are held about drinking ages and about dangerous blood alcohol levels. For alcohol, an industry of producers and sellers is above-ground, large, thriving, connected to high society serving as role models, backed by opinion leaders, and probably politically well-connected.

But with some drugs mere possession or use is a coupon for jail, maybe for a slew of years.

The law likely makes a dent in possession or use. Consider when marijuana sales became lawful in California, I think for medical use but still popularly. The scale would jump from a few plants hidden at each spot to being able to grow a large crop on one big farm within American borders, cutting production cost right through the harvest. Interdictions and search warrants would drop to nearly zero. A dealer who’s being threatened could call the taxpayer-funded police instead of a private criminal gang who’s being chased by the police and who has to be paid somehow. Security costs would therefore come down. The lower costs would permit lower prices and competition would encourage them. The price should have come down from what it was when it was all against the law. But, instead, initially, prices rose. It turned out that the law had unleashed demand from people who refused to buy it before legalization because it was against the law, even though they could justify using it medically, because of their real health conditions. People who refuse to buy may be physically no less able to buy, and economically more able to buy, than people who are willing to buy, yet they still refused until released by law. (The price may have come down since then, if production and sales volumes grew.) So, criminal law can dampen demand.

Persistence of Demand

But even severe felony sentences do not erase demand. It’s not even close. The libertarian demand to be allowed to put whatever one wants into one’s own body, especially if defined expansively enough to include consumption of medicine beyond a doctor’s prescription such as too many diet pills or adult use of a child’s Ritalin, is popular. Fulfilling it even against the law is within the physical capacity of many people. Someone hid elephants. (The FBI found them, live, in Texas, and trucked them out.) Numerous buses, trucks, and high-value cars get stolen every year and many get smuggled out of the United States. Imagine what it takes to smuggle a truck. So, smuggling a drug supply the size of a brick or an envelope is not exactly impossible and evidently many people are motivated to do it, have the skills, and succeed at it. So, demand generally gets satisfied.

Logistics, Corruption, and Nations Tottering at the Edge of Failure

To satisfy the demand, much of the drug supply is produced outside of the U.S. and then is processed and transported in other nations before further transit in the U.S. Police and militaries are often hunting them down. Processing and transport become easier when more people help, but they’re helping through their own criminal activities. Therefore, the leaders of the drug trade need to recruit the help and also need to isolate themselves and their helpers from law enforcement. The best way to isolate them is to make them afraid of law enforcement, and the best way to reduce contact is to have them commit major crimes, too, so they’re motivated to stay away from any police at all times. Most people if credibly threatened with their lives or their families' lives will commit the major crimes demanded. At the same time, a criminal organization sometimes has excess capacity in the form of idle members and idle cash, a problem that faces most legitimate businesses including those in the Fortune 500. Criminal organizations and Fortune 500 companies both cope with idle capacity by finding a new use for it or by trimming it, and, for a criminal organization, trimming it exposes the organization to the risk of complaints to law enforcement from former criminal members unless the criminal organization kills them in quantity, which has its own risk. So they’re given new work and new work is found by expanding into new enterprises, perhaps kidnapping for ransom, manufacturing counterfeit goods, and loansharking. If the new enterprises make money, that’s the main idea. If profits are really good, protecting them increasingly requires higher-level protection. With crime scaling up, evading nosey police officers is no longer enough and perhaps judges and politicians have to be bribed or threatened or friendlier ones elected through stealing of elections. Eventually, if the growth continues, almost the whole local government is corrupted, most local residents become criminals because the criminal organization is afraid of anyone who can be a witness against their members and so they’re co-opted into crime, and, while the criminal activity is often profitable, taxes go unpaid, above-board investment falls, and expensive government services are not provided as much. Failing provinces risk turning their nations into failing nations, nations that lack governmental ability to collect most of the taxes its laws demand and to provide most of the services most of its population demands and that could be paid for from the national budget if most of the taxes could be collected.

States don’t fail as fast when they get outside props, and the U.S. provides some by helping support the nations’ efforts that further the reach U.S. criminal drug laws, perhaps through arrests and extradition and through crop destruction. The U.S. does this because it is a priority in U.S. national policy and funding. The policy priority is anchored in felony statutes prescribing long prison sentences and in frequent prosecutions and findings of guilt.

National Security, Poverty, and Exceptionalism

High felonization in the U.S. for something remaining in high demand, even with great economic intentions, may thus be destroying regional economies and polities outside the U.S., possibly threatening the national security of several nations including the U.S., and undermining some local economies in the U.S., localities where most people have low incomes unless they engage in crime, with criminal organizations happy to oblige.

This should be intolerable. If it’s not, it may be due to awful thinking: that we can do anything domestically and the rest of the world has a duty to go along with our decisions and threats of war can be left to the generals to manage, because we’re stronger than anyone else. But a flaw is that even if we win such a war we win it often at a cost to ourselves. Even the victor pays. Therefore, we should consider whether the cost will be worth it. It could be lawful, we could win, and the enemy could pay more than we would, but that might not be enough of a justification, and, in this case, I think it’s not.

A Relief Valve

Escapism is practiced without drugs, too: running away from home, TV binging, taking up a hobby without revealing that it’s a hint of a career aspiration, and new personal relationships that justify changing allegiances and priorities are examples. They, too, can defeat the family pressures to achieve economically and socially in uninteresting ways. But they’re mostly not outlawed. It’s perfectly legal to practice scales and try for a multi-million-dollar singing contract. You probably won’t get signed up or even a major audition, but it’s generally legal to try. So one could wonder why some drugs are outlawed.

Penalty Scale

High to Low and None

Some substances should be outlawed and subject to the severest of penalties for use, possession, sale, and so on. Those would be the substances that have no known utility other than killing people. I don’t know which substances those are, but imagine someone exploring a little-traveled untamed jungle, such as the Amazon. In real life, someone discovered a primate that reportedly could exhale on an enemy and thereby kill the enemy with cancer in twenty minutes. If our imaginary explorer found and collected this substance (the exhaled breath), then, given that it is good only for killing people, using it should be unlawful and thus grouped with other tools that are good only for killing people. Exceptions could exist, such as for scientific experimentation to find a quantity small enough to support another purpose. Applications to a government for experiments should be evaluated primarily on the applicants’ commitment to and ability for safety and secondarily on the scientific viability of the design of the proposed experiments to assure some degree of scientific research is to be done, and not on the political desirability of the expected outcomes.

With drugs that are not solely for killing, if there is still danger in medical terms, including fatality, then, if the reason for banning them is their danger, that applies to tackle football, too. A growing number of families are keeping their boys out of that game because of the danger, but there isn’t much talk of outlawing the entire sport. For drugs with major risks, some restrictions with some penalties are fine for some drugs, based on the degree of danger. But no draconian penalties that don’t lower demand much but encourage criminal organizations to cope by murdering witnesses, bribing or blackmailing the police, and taking other drastic steps that themselves harm society are warranted. For all of those drugs, education and treatment are good offers.

Some drugs should come with little or no penalty for similar acts. Those would be the drugs that are about as dangerous as others lawfully on the market. Marijuana for smoking has often been compared to alcohol for drinking on the ground of relative dangers to consumers.

Chemists’ Creativity

Designer drugs, those not violating law but that should be legally restricted because they have been newly invented and have consequences similar to those of drugs violating law, can be restricted by a catch-all law that might delegate regulatory authority to a government agency that can regulate more quickly than a legislature can legislate to like effect, with a regulatory proposal procedure that can be transparent, accept evidence pro and con, and prescribe that defendants be treated as they would be if charged with respect to the comparison drug and with a sunset provision to give a legislature time, perhaps a year or two, to make the restriction permanent through legislation. Criminalization by regulation is already law in other subjects and is lawful.

Ancillary-Crime Penalties Should Remain

Drugs are expensive and many people commit economic crimes to get the money to pay for them. The same problem applies with gambling, which society discourages but largely does not felonize, and the trend has been to permit more gambling, despite a widely-known religious proscription against it. Robbery and burglary should be punished for deterrence; being intended for drugs should not be a mitigating factor. But high penalties for drugs may not be reducing robbery and burglary rates much and, to reduce the risks of a witness being present, may be leading to more dangerous forms of robbery.

Even without a penalty for use per se, there should be a penalty for use if it is within embarking on a dangerous activity where the substance substantially degrades the user’s ability to refrain from heavily endangering others relative to that ability during nonuse. Use while impaired with serious consequences should be punished more severely than causing the same consequences but accidentally without impairment by substance use, in order to deter others from using and then endangering others while impaired. If a defense is that impairment is such that the impaired user could not protect safety that the user otherwise could have, and therefore the user cannot be punished, the answer is to require nonuse, treatment, and supervision sufficient to prevent reuse, perhaps round-the-clock, the nonuse and treatment alone not being enough where self-responsibility falls too far short.

Chauvinism Revisited

That drugs apparently being used mainly by people of color were sometimes the main drugs that were felonized has been credibly written up in the past. That’s a misuse of law and that’s, on net balance, harmful to individuals and society, with the additional problem of promoting racism, even if it was based on pre-existing racism.


Laws are enacted due to politics. The political underpining of these laws nationally and perhaps globally is likely against the use regardless of impairment, on the premise that almost all use is counterproductive to economic activities and what use is not directly counterproductive is merely entertaining and people should not be wasting much time and economic resources on mere entertainment while failing to be productive.

But that may be contributing to the problem and not just because that line of thinking contributes to the unlawfulness of drug use. It appears that many young people are being raised on the premise that they have obligations to achieve unusually demanding goals, such as becoming doctors and lawyers for their remunerative value, and refusal of that by the young people is refused by their parents, so that they come to believe that their only way out is to be too impaired to follow the parental direction and specifically to fail on the premise that they can’t help it. A similar phenomenon may have happened in the Soviet Union, when national pressure to produce may have contributed to widespread impairment with alcohol (when the last Soviet top leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried banning vodka sales, consumption of car gasoline for a similar purpose reportedly went up, and he also repeated a common joke of the time, you pretend to work and we pretend to pay you, suggesting that job satisfaction was low). That may explain the treatment nowadays being begun with claims that drug use is due to addiction, defined as being beyond the user’s control and due to certain brain chemistry changes, thus taking the sense of decision-making out of the consumer’s hands. That claim appears unsustainable given that the same chemistry change occurs with falling in love and we are not hospitalizing people for that.

The political weight of each of the pro-felonization and anti-felonization sides is partly because, in general, the pro-felonization side has nothing to fear by being public with their views while the other side is presumably using and therefore has much to hide, so they keep their mouths shut. (Many large enterprises depend on the ability of their many employees to testify on behalf of their employers and drug (or alcohol) usage on a relevant date can be used to impeach their testimony and destroy the employers’ cases, and that’s likely one reason the enterprises do drug screening before or soon after hiring, so employees of large enterprises are unlikely to speak publicly in favor of legalization even if they themselves use.) Yet it appears that large amounts of money are being paid at retail, and a normal percentage of that can finance cultivating political support, but probably isn’t. Criminal organizations have little interest in legalization, since they’d be driven out of the market if it’s legal, lawful competition undercutting their prices and gaining police protection, including police poking into the remaining criminal organizations, so they’d rather agree with the pro-restrictionists. Thus, the political debate is skewed in favor of restriction.


Since there seems not much good reason for the high severity of penalties for recreational drug consumption and closely related acts, other than that the penalties are politically popular, I’d rather there be a more compelling reason.