How America got high as a kite

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“Is this hell?” So wondered Joseph Emerson, in the grips (he says) of a trip on psychedelic mushrooms that had gone badly wrong. Nothing unusual about this. Anyone who has been around users of psychedelic drugs, or drugs generally, knows that things go badly sideways occasionally. They get back on track before long, as a rule. 

The complicating factor is that Emerson was sitting in the cockpit of a passenger plane, and the plane was in the air. He was not, thank goodness, one of the pilots. He was an off-duty pilot for the airline catching a ride home. Imagining himself to be in a nightmare, he says, he decided to wake himself up by crashing the plane. He grabbed the fire suppression handle, which cuts fuel to the engines, before being restrained. The danger appears to have been brief and limited. All the same, Emerson faces 83 counts of attempted murder.

Starting a few years ago, America has been conducting a huge national experiment in the legalisation, decriminalisation and destigmatisation of drugs. Marijuana, now fully legal in 24 states, is the biggest part of this, but it doesn’t stop there. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, is now legal to possess in two states and various cities. Oregon decriminalised possession of small amounts of all drugs three years ago. Ecstasy is working towards approval as a therapeutic product, a distinction already bestowed on ketamine. 

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Meanwhile the attitude towards drugs of the nice, boring, middle-class people I hang around with has changed noticeably. Rare is the person in my social circle who does not chew pot gummies. I have several friends who microdose LSD to improve their mood. This is to say nothing of the unbelievable prevalence of anti-anxiety drugs, in particular benzodiazepines. To a first approximation, everyone is getting high.

I have a simple hypothesis about all this: over time, when you introduce large amounts of drugs into a large population of people, weird things happen. We don’t have any real idea how this experiment is going to turn out.

I don’t mean this in a Nancy Reagany way. I approve of almost any effort, however idiotic, aimed at having a good time. And the arguments against criminalisation of most drugs short of meth and fentanyl are sound enough: it is expensive, makes the wrong people rich, puts too many others in prison and encourages wider criminality. Laws controlling personal conduct are to be avoided whenever possible. In the case of marijuana, specifically, outlawing the ingestion of a common plant whose primary side-effect is passive stupidity seems simply mad.  

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The problem is the unknowns. On my morning commutes in New York, I often share a subway car with a respectable-looking citizen casually rolling a joint, preparing to smoke their breakfast. Dispensaries are everywhere. And while the effect of pot on most people is benign, any psychiatrist or a quick consult with Dr Google will inform you that there is a link, for a small minority, between marijuana and psychosis. Only as marijuana use becomes pervasive — which it will — will we find out exactly how many of these people there are.

The best analogy for this is alcohol. We need to remember, as our bongs gurgle merrily, how our entire society has been shaped around the original legal drug. Our rituals are built around it. We teach the young about its dangers. We have an entire subculture, in Alcoholics Anonymous, that has grown up to help the people who have a deadly relationship with drink. And still we bury 140,000 Americans a year who die from drinking too much; guns kill only a third as many. This is what we pay for the freedom to drink. The bill for the freedom to take drugs is yet to be presented. 

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Having made these scoldy and blue-nosed observations, I offer my approval of the great decriminalisation. We’ve tried the alternative and it hasn’t been great.

The point is to resist the kind of lazy libertarianism that seems indigenous to the American character. We are eager, as a nation, to think that any rule foisted upon us from above is a profit-making bureaucratic racket or a puritanical relic of our religious past. The harm of removing laws, on this mindset, is restricted to the lives of a few weak or foolish people who can’t handle their liberty. But our experience with alcohol should teach us that the trade-offs are much harder than that. Even laws that need to be struck down were usually written for a good reason.

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