Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why You Can’t Legislate Psychoactive Drug Use Out of Existence

Psychoactive drug use is one of the “big three” so-called “victimless” crimes that our government has, in recent years, tried to control though criminalization, aka prohibition. (The other two are gambling and prostitution.) I think a big part of the rationale behind such legislation is a belief that behavior can be controlled through the use of punishment. In other words, it’s a simple application of the principles of instrumental conditioning—a punished behavior has a tendency to decrease in frequency.

However I believe that psychoactive drug use is not governed by any of the principles known to affect human behavior, but instead is quite unique. It’s not even like the other victimless crimes, which can to a certain extent successfully be controlled. That’s because virtually everyone uses psychoactive drugs. Not just everyone today, here in this country, but I think I can reasonably assert that virtually everyone that ever lived has used psychoactive drugs of some kind. If you think about it, how many people do you know or have known that use no psychoactive drugs whatsoever (in case you didn’t realize it, alcohol is a psychoactive drug)? I can think of four people (adults) I’ve known in my nearly half-century of life that, to the best of my knowledge, used no psychoactive drugs. If I broaden the definition to include caffeine, which is certainly a psychoactive drug, I don’t know a single person who would qualify as a total abstainer. Unless you are a member of a very strict fundamentalist religious group (and even Christians use alcohol as a sacrament), I’m guessing you would probably answer that question the same way I did. Non-drug users are pretty hard to find.

So what does that tell you? It tells me that the desire to use psychoactive drugs is a very basic, deeply-ingrained aspect of human nature. Unlike gambling or prostitution, which a relatively small percentage of people do, drugs appear to be something people cannot live without. Our government telling people that drugs are bad and we should not use them is about as effective as the Catholic church telling people they should only have sex for the purpose of procreation. I know a lot of Catholics, and I’d venture to say that not a one of them abides by that decree. Regardless of what any government says, or how severe its punishments are, people will always use recreational drugs. It’s what people do. You simply cannot legislate any aspect of human nature out of existence.

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