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PoliticsJanuary 28, 2019

Why a public vote is the wrong way to determine drug policy

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Does the way we approach drug law form fundamentally overlook what addiction is all about, asks Danyl Mclauchlan

It’s been a long time since I smoked pot. My friends and I used to smoke it at school. We were bored, I suppose, but in retrospect this was a terrible place to take drugs. My prevailing memory is that of sitting in economics after lunch, afternoon sun slanting through the windows, looking around at my classmates and seeing how red their eyes were, how obviously high we all were, how likely we were to get caught and possibly expelled, and then, in the depths of my paranoia, someone opening a door at the front of the room, which caused a perceptual glitch in my brain and the entire front wall of the class receded backwards into infinity. I clutched the edges of my desk, feeling dizzy, as through my centre of gravity was pitching forwards into the abyss, and I began to moan, softly at first then louder, while my very high friends hissed at me to be quiet.

I had more fun with the drug in my 20s but it often made me fall asleep and it was hard to wake me up. There was an incident at a beach party – I obviously don’t remember the details – where I crashed out on the sand and my girlfriend at the time had a panic attack because she thought the tide was coming in. I stopped using the drug around then, mostly because people stopped offering it to me. But most of my memories of pot are vague but happy ones.

We seem to be entering a period of cultural reaction against the legalisation of cannabis. See, for example, Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. Some of it feels hysterical; some of it reasonable. I think widespread availability of pot will cause a lot of harm but I think this because the drug is already widely available, despite its illegality, and thus already causing harm, and the harm is compounded by prohibition. Profits from sales of the drug go to criminal organisations who pay no tax while most of the costs – both of the drug’s harm and enforcement of the drug laws – are inflicted on poor and vulnerable communities who can least afford it. Meanwhile members of the middle-class – ie me when I was a kid – ignore the law and smoke it with basically no risk. But the more I think about it, the more I believe a referendum is the wrong direction for drug policy, and the wrong way of thinking about the problem.

The classical liberal argument against prohibition is that it is an attack on personal freedom: the individual is best equipped to make rational choices about how to maximise our happiness; the state shouldn’t interfere with that by dictating which products we purchase or consume. Most liberals are smart enough to realise there are limits to that freedom: that giving people access to highly addictive substances that damage our health and take away our ability to choose whether we consume them obviously makes us less free, so we ban recreational opioids, regulate alcohol and tobacco, etc.

Things get tricky with substances like pot: only about 10-20% of habitual users can be classified as addicts. Most people who use it do so enjoyably, with minimal consequence. Prohibition, the argument goes, is a form of moral panic rather than “evidence based policy” and the fiscal and social costs are terrible, so there’s a utilitarian calculus that points in the direction of decriminalisation and some form of regulation.

Back in 1996 – around the time I was falling asleep on beaches – the American novelist David Foster Wallace published Infinite Jest, a (sorry about this) post-postmodern novel about addiction. The plot is focused on the inhabitants of a tennis academy and their neighbors in a drug and alcohol rehab clinic, and revolves around a movie called Infinite Jest, also known as “the Entertainment”, a film so engrossing that everyone who sees it watches it over and over again, compulsively, until they die. Wallace was addicted to pot and alcohol, which he recovered from, and nicotine, coffee and television, which he did not.

Addiction, Wallace felt, was one of the central problems of modernity. It’s the consequence of being a species with a nervous system designed by natural selection, which incentivises behavior that once maximised our evolutionary fitness by rewarding it with brief bursts of pleasure; but a species that now exercises enough control over our environment that we can endlessly, repeatedly stimulate the dopaminergic pathways in our brains by eating foods loaded with sugar and fat, buying consumer products, watching TV, masturbating to porn (there is no USA in Infinite Jest, it’s been replaced by the Organisation of North American Nations: ONAN), and taking drugs. Even the tennis players in the book are addicted to competitive tennis. And, as every addict knows, the highs are always followed by the lows. The dopamine bursts are followed by refractory periods; repeated over-stimulation of the mesolimbic reward system leads to anhedonia: an inability to feel pleasure, the classic symptom of clinical depression. The logical end points of rationalism, liberalism and consumer capitalism, Wallace suggests, are incompatible with human nature and human happiness.

Wallace is not a political writer, at least not in the activist sense: his critique is conservative, essentially religious, and grapples with the problem of how individuals can live meaningful lives given the culture and society we find ourselves in. There are no policy answers in Infinite Jest, but its argument raises important questions about drug policy that I think the traditional liberal framework struggles to answer.

The first is whether the mantra “treat drugs as a health problem, not a criminal problem”, is credible. What if addiction is not a health problem or a crime problem but, rather, an addiction problem – that is to say a separate and very hard class of problem that intersects with health and criminal justice but also, in a very powerful way, our economic system? What if addiction is a problem for which there’s currently no state infrastructure but, instead of building that infrastructure we’re just casting around for currently existing institutions – prisons! No, healthcare! – and trying to throw them at the problem?

The second: what if addiction is a broader problem than just drug law? There’s currently no form of entertainment as lethally addictive as Infinite Jest’s ‘The Entertainment’, but there’s no drug that addictive either. We outlaw drugs further down the addiction spectrum, and we can see other forms of entertainment – slot machines, YouTube algorithms, video games, social media feeds – rapidly moving up the addiction spectrum. We would probably ban a designer drug that was, say, highly addictive to 10% of teenage boys. How do we regulate other forms of entertainment that are designed to be just as addictive?

The third is: what if addiction is a constant product of technological progress, meaning it is a problem that will continually escalate and get worse, rather than go away? What if the more we know about biochemistry and human cognition the easier it will be to manufacture addictive products, which are the most commercially desirable products? In 2018 the United States saw a massive increase in teen smoking, mostly driven by JUUL, a an e-cigarette that delivers massive doses of flavoured nicotine and targets the youth market via Instagram campaigns; the US opioid epidemic – which killed over 70,000 people in 2017 – raged on and the same synthetic opioids driving it appeared for sale in New Zealand drug markets; dozens of New Zealanders died from synthetic cannabis; social media sites increased the algorithmic batching of social approval indicators – likes, retweets etc – to mimic the intermittent reinforcement compulsive gamblers get from slot machines; virtual reality porn became more sophisticated; Sky City casinos lobbied for more slot machines; parents started sending their Fortnite-addicted children to rehab.

We’re used to seeing these as separate problems with separate solutions – some of them are criminal, or social, or moral or things that aren’t even regarded as problems, but I feel that these are all different perspectives on the same problem, the Infinite Jest problem that Wallace wrote about back in the 90s: the intersection of biology, technology and human unhappiness.

Governments have been failing at drug policy for a long time. The War on Drugs has been a disaster but so has the legalisation and commercialisation of alcohol and tobacco. Elected politicians seem to be bad at designing policy around addictive products. It’s not hard to see why: there’s too much moral panic, too much populist positioning around which drugs are legal and which are not, and when and against whom laws are enforced, and too much scope for regulatory capture and good old corruption. A referendum is a classic liberal solution to all this. Let’s ask the people! Which is a very partial solution to a deep and complex and escalating problem.

Advanced liberal societies often solve problems of this class, not by politicising them further but by removing them from the political system and building independent, technocratic institutions. Elected MPs used to make decisions about what the official cash rate should be and which pharmaceutical drugs should be funded in the public health system, and they were so obviously terrible at this they devolved that power to the Reserve Bank and Pharmac.

I think we need to do that with drugs. I think holding public referendums about drug policy is comparable to a society that – for whatever reason – doesn’t have a fire department; and their houses and buildings keep burning down, so the political class asks the public whether the police or ambulance services should put out all the fires. There is no good binary answer to that question. The answer is that they need a fire department, and we need an independent institution, or institutions that make informed decisions about recreational drugs and other addictive products, that treats people with addiction problems, and makes sure that the external costs of legal addictive products are met by the companies that sell them not the communities that are harmed by them.

David Foster Wallace was skeptical about looking for political solutions for problems he considered personal and spiritual. And there’s something to be said for that: it’s very easy to evade the problems in our lives by claiming they’re caused by society, or capitalism, or whatever, and that someone else needs to fix them, somehow. But drugs and addiction are political issues. It’s true that politics is the art of the possible, and in an adversarial system where there’s no political consensus the set of possible things can be very small. So I get why a referendum on cannabis is a viable way forward: an incremental means to get to a probably-not-great but still less terrible place than we’re at now. I’ll still vote for it. But I feel like it’s the exact wrong direction to take the debate.

My sense is that the cause of cannabis decriminalisation is mostly driven by middle-class liberals who like smoking pot and want more convenient access to it, and resisted by politicians and groups who think they can make political capital out of scare campaigns opposing them, and this narcotisingly familiar culture war framework – accompanied with the usual high-minded rhetoric – leaves us lying on the beach, oblivious while the tide of technological addiction washes in; that it crowds out the deeper problems; that we should all be bolt upright at our desks, moaning in horror as the possibility of free will, consumer choice and simple happiness recede into infinity before us.


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