May 30, 2003


When Holding a Party Is a Crime (JACOB SULLUM, May 30, 2003, NY Times)
During Prohibition, the government required that industrial alcohol be poisoned, typically with methanol, to keep it from being converted into cocktails. If bootleggers did not completely remove the adulterant, it could cause blindness, paralysis and death. Thus a measure aimed at discouraging alcohol consumption made it more hazardous for those who continued to drink.

A similar dynamic can be seen in today's war on drugs. The latest example is a law President Bush signed last month. The measure, attached to the Amber Alert bill by Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, holds club owners responsible for drug use on their property. The main target--reflected in the rider's original name, the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) bill--is the all-night dance parties, or raves, where the drug MDMA, also called Ecstasy, is popular.

The act prohibits "knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing or using any controlled substance." Given this broad language, anyone who organizes or rents space for an event where drug use takes place could face criminal charges. Not only is the law unlikely to keep people from using Ecstasy, it could magnify the drug's dangers by pushing raves further underground and discouraging voluntary efforts to protect users from serious harm.

One of the lynchpins of libertarian orthodoxy is that people are rational actors. This is necessary in order to argue that if I leave you alone you too will leave me alone and that we don't need the state to intervene between us. Of course, the lynchpin gets heaved out the window when it's inconvenient to other libertarian arguments. For example, Mr. Sullum asks us to accept the contradictory notion that this act will make Ecstasy use more dangerous, even lethal, but that this fact won't affect usage. Is he asking us to believe that people do not behave rationally or that Ecstasy is so seductive and addictive that users can't stop? Of course, it hardly matters because either is an argument for more rigorous control of a damaging substance, not less. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 30, 2003 1:10 PM
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