I think it is more an article of faith than a empirical  fact that liberalizing drug laws or legalizing certain drugs would cure a lot of our society’s ills. I say that as a person who very-much supports the idea of drug legalization, at least for pot and a few other limited drugs.

But as I watch the bath salts and fake weed controversies evolve, I wonder whether they don’t offer empirical evidence that our fantasy of legal drug Nirvana may be just that. Out of a list of reasons to legalize weed, two that jump out as the more common ones are that:

  1. Making drugs illegal doesn’t really stop people from doing them, and
  2. Illegal, unregulated drugs are inherently dangerous, because you don’t know what you’re buying

13WHAM’s Evan Dawson has a report up that shows that cracking down on the sale of synthetic, nominally legal intoxicants is having a significant impact in the Rochester area:

13WHAM News combined the number of local calls to poison control about bath salts with the number of emergency room visits related to bath salts. Here are the totals, month-by-month, which show a surge in bath salts, followed by a steep decline after the ban:

March 2012:  23
April 2012:  30
May 2012:  42
June 2012:  81
July 2012:  104
August 2012:  29
September 2012:  19
October 2012:  3

In a bubble, we had what seems to be a pretty significant problem by July, which seems to have been eliminated by October. It is impossible to tell whether this is just a fad that ran its course – perhaps sped by crackdowns – or a legitimate case for illegality as a preventative measure. Certainly, High Times and head shops have always been filled with “alternative” drugs. I can’t say I ever knew anyone who tried them. Certainly, things changed.

But the second argument – that legal drugs will be less harmful – is clearly in doubt as well. In fact, the only reason this story was ever a story is because people were getting hurt. Hurt by things sold over the counter, entirely legally.

American history prior to the passage of the 18th Amendment bares both these truths out: use of legal drugs from alcohol to cocaine and opiates was legion throughout the country. For a Rochester perspective on just how overrun our alcohol culture was in the mid-1800’s, read A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. There is no credible measure by which our current levels of drug and alcohol abuse compare to those days. And because our 19th century drug and alcohol problem was as much as anything a manufacturing problem, there are numerous examples of less than ethical mixtures, including but not limited to using cocaine and opiates in just about every “curative” you could sell at the drug store.

Perhaps what this says is that “decriminalization” is less desirable than legalization – bringing illegal drugs under the same legal regime as alcohol. Anyway, just food for thought on a Thursday afternoon.