Posted by: erichosemann | November 4, 2009

Libertarianism on Drugs

Libertarianism, wherethehellfore art thou?

That’s what I felt like screaming after reading Jacob Sullum’s execrable description of his salvia hallucinations.  The print edition of the December Reason isn’t available online yet.  [Update: IT LIVES…! Here.]  You should thank whatever god you believe in for that little fact.  [Update: If you watched some of the lame “tripping on salvia videos, please don’t try clawing your eyes out.]

I almost can’t stand reading Reason anymore.  I feel miserable about that.  I want Reason to be better than it is.  Not New Yorker better, or Harper’s better, or whatever the beturtlenecked metrosexual literati think is “better.”  Just better somehow.  I don’t know.  They could start by dumping their senior editor’s lame descriptions of mind-altering substances.

Sullum’s little fantasia is dispiriting.  While liberty is being assaulted from angles too numerous to count, Aldous Sullum had to spend a weekend staring at—I’m not making this up—“the head of a human-sized cat wearing a knight’s helmet, a wizard with a flowing beard, and a wolf with glowing eyes.”

Too much of the wacky tobaccy and you become a caricature.  That’s what Sullum has done.  Sullum’s goofy little vision quest is prima facie evidence why libertarians will never have much political clout in this country.  I’ve known plenty of people whose M.O. was “mind expansion.”  I’m sure their inner space was overpopulated with leaping gnomes and gentle bedposts, but their outer space usually reeked of condescension, cigarette smoke and week-old underwear.  None of them were leaders, though they fancied themselves as such.  Most slept late and spent their best brain cells trying to rationalize why other people didn’t “get” them.  Doing all that requires more time than your garden-variety ardent political activist has to spare.  Hence the national wheel-spin that is libertarianism.

Don’t get me wrong on this; I’m anti-war on drugs.  The war on drugs is a win-win-win for government, drug cartels and users.  Governments win because the war on drugs gives cover for their less legitimate acts; it gives them plenty of raisons d’être and distracts us all from their thievery.   The cartels win because the illegality of buying and selling drugs keeps competition at a minimum, and thus prices high.  Users win because they get something to complain about and a cross to bear: “Oooh, I just need this one release—and the man just keeps me from [getting high, communing with god, seeing the black dog, dropping out, etc., etc. ad-freaking-infinitum].”  Were drugs legalized, all three parties would suddenly get back to business.  Government would start enforcing legitimate laws.  Drug cartels would stop doling out Columbian neckties and lacing hashish with Tide and get to producing cheaper, higher quality products.  Using would suddenly be bereft of counter-cultural cache.  No longer able to wax awkwardly poetical about their drug-induced visions, users would either drop the habit entirely or retreat into their own worlds, sparing us their cringe-inducing self-reverential lameness.

A year or so ago, at the height of mania about his book Liberal Fascism, I sent a frustrated fanboy email to Jonah Goldberg about a nascent liberaltarianism—a freakish mixture of liberal activism and libertarian wish-fulfillment.  Goldberg never responded—why would he?—but the point of my email was that liberaltarians were canaries in the mine shaft.  They were proof that the statist-corporatist-fascist vapors of the current political zeitgeist were strong enough to convince certain members of the libertarian vanguard that individual freedom wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  As a recovering quasi-liberal, I returned to libertarianism thinking it a bracing astringent.  Instead I found some of its principle exponents ready to make peace with paternalists and statists.  Having read Sullum, I now know the terms of the truce: we’ll let you have your bloated, over-weening state, as long as its fat folds don’t press too hard against us while we’re tripping on salvia.

The idea I’m trying to get at is that work like Sullum’s, and Kerry Howley’s, tells me that libertarianism has lost its way.  It isn’t the job of libertarians to prove drugs should be legal by doing drugs and implicitly bragging about it; it isn’t the job of libertarians to actively undermine other people’s cultural norms.  The job of libertarians is to argue over and over again that banning stuff diminishes the freedom quotient rather than expanding it; that a diminished set of behavioral choices means a diminished individual.  You don’t need to smoke pot to realize that keeping people from choosing not to stunts their growth as individuals.  People define themselves by the choices they make—unfortunately for Sullum and his chivalric man-cat—and that’s precisely why libertarians should calmly step away from the salvia plant and the idea that promoting “alternative lifestyles” is more important than promoting freedom in general.  The sad thing about Sullum’s creepy sidebar is that the larger piece in which it is featured is pretty good.  Sullum is up in arms over hair-trigger legislators itching for pre-emptive salvia bans and exaggerating the effects and prominence of salvia use.  The piece is well-written and well-researched, and none of the points he makes in it would be diminished if his personal experience with salvia were not included.  But he includes it anyway.  Why?  To be edgy?  For shock value?  Hearing users detail the wonders of their drug of choice doesn’t help the movement.  It’s called bias, and there are rational reasons why straight-laced bible thumpers think twice before believing a pothead’s list of the virtues of his beloved cannabis sativa. Potheads are similarly skeptical about the virtues of life sans-herb.  That’s their prerogative.  As libertarians, let’s dig into the virtues of this mutual prerogative and promote it as a means to the end of individual freedom and growth.



  1. Are you insisting he stick to the confines of the label “Libertarian”? Direct experience (as well as “distance”) is an honorable human way to gain perspective. He’s done his research and was able to experience it in a safe and intelligent way. He could and may go further with it. If a person read they’d be informed enough perhaps to have the experience without the plant, lucid dreaming and meditation are two means to this and also happen to be activities inspired by the wise use of the plant. Proper perspective and respectful action with this plant can take us far beyond the nightmare that muddled politics and religion have conditioned us to live.

    • I don’t think tripping on salvia and then writing about it helps Sullum’s case against crackpot legislators and busybodies. If Sullum wants to write about his salvia experiences, let him do so far enough away from public policy debates to keep from doing them any harm. The larger piece about salvia was fine. He simply messed it up because he wanted to establish himself as credible on tripping or make some kind of point. Perhaps we all need to trip on salvia to find out what that point was supposed to be.

      Furthermore, direct experience with a hallucinogen is nothing more than direct experience with a hallucinogen. It’s great that Sullum used his capacity as a rational being to engage in salvia hallucinations, but his doing so can mean nothing for proponents of salvia use. There is nothing he can convey about his experience other than opinion. For all we know, he may be lying about his experience. I doubt it, but that is the nature of the experience with mind-altering drugs. Also: once he used salvia, his ability to argue as a disinterested observer against its ban was compromised. He did himself and us a disservice by plastering his dreamquest on the pages of a respected libertarian publication. If I were a provincial politician itching for a new cause around which to rally the electorate, I’d offer Sullum’s account of his salvia trip as prima facie evidence that salvia erodes one’s ability to reason.

  2. Yep, there are many people who’d benefit by Salvia divinorum. There’s so much ignorance, your argument seems to prove that. Salvia divinorum is in the Class of Existentia, I quote Dale Pendell:

    “Ska Pastora is not a hallucinogen. That is not to say that it does not share some of the characteristics of class phantastica, it does. But there are also differences. The “true” hallucinogens all act on the 5-HT2 receptors. While the receptors of diviner’s sage have not been discovered, the experiential evidence points to some new receptor, or to some holographic inundation of mind. And while many hallucinogens will help one’s golf game (or, as Dock Ellis proved, one’s major league pitching), a certain muscular discoordination accompanies the sage inebriation.

    On the Pharmako/Poeia mandala, I put the little leaves on the path between phantastica and inebriantia, and name itexistentia . By existentia, I do not mean anything Cartesian, nor even David Bohm’s separate-from-self implicate order, but mean that which precedes essence.
    It’s a personal thing. Existence.
    If you can just stop thinking about it.
    Salvia divinorum is what you get by crossing an entheogen with an atheist.

    It’s not like being high, it’s more like being practical.”

    I wonder, do you even meditate?

  3. This might be to your liking:)


    A drug policy respectful of democratic values would aim to educate people to make informed
    choices based on their own needs and ideals. Such a simple prescription is necessary and sadly

    A master plan for seriously seeking to come to terms with America’s drug problems might
    explore a number of options, including the following.

    1. A 200 percent federal tax should be imposed on tobacco and alcohol. All government
    subsidies for tobacco production should be ended. Warnings on packaging should be
    strengthened. A 20 percent federal sales tax should be levied on sugar and sugar substitutes,
    and all supports for sugar production should be ended. Sugar packages should also carry
    warnings, and sugar should be a mandatory topic in school nutrition curricula.

    2. All forms of cannabis should be legalized and a 200 percent federal sales tax imposed on
    cannabis products. Information as to the THC content of the product and current conclusions
    regarding its impact on health should be printed on the packaging.

    3. International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending should be withdrawn from countries
    that produce hard drugs. Only international inspection and certification that a country is in
    compliance would restore loan eligibility.

    4. Strict gun control must apply to both manufacture and possession. It is the unrestricted
    availability of firearms that has made violent crime and the drug abuse problem so intertwined.

    5. The legality of nature must be recognized, so that all plants are legal to grow and possess.

    6. Psychedelic therapy should be made legal and insurance coverage extended to include it.

    7. Currency and banking regulations need to be strengthened. Presently bank collusion with
    criminal cartels allows large-scale money laundering to take place.

    8. There is an immediate need for massive support for scientific research into all aspects of
    substance use and abuse and an equally massive commitment to public education.

    9. One year after implementation of the above, all drugs still illegal in the United States
    should be decrimi-

    nalized. The middleman is eliminated, the government can sell drugs at cost plus 200 percent,
    and those monies can be placed in a special fund to pay the social, medical, and educational
    costs of the legalization program. Money from taxes on alcohol, tobacco, sugar, and can-nabis
    can also be placed in this fund. Also following this one-year period, pardons should be given
    to all offenders in drug cases that did not involve firearms or felonious assault.

    If these proposals seem radical, it is only because we have drifted so far from the ideals that
    were originally most American. At the foundation of the American theory of social polity is
    the notion that our inalienable rights include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To
    pretend that the right to the pursuit of happiness does not include the right to experiment with
    psychoactive plants and substances is to make an argument that is at best narrow and at worst
    ignorant and primitive. The only religions that are anything more than the traditionally
    sanctioned moral codes are religions of trance, dance ecstasy, and intoxication by
    hallucinogens. The living fact of the mystery of being is there, and it is an inalienable religious
    right to be able to approach it on one’s own terms. A civilized society would enshrine that
    principle in law.

    Terence McKenna in Food of The Gods

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