Flash Forward: The Altered State

Today we travel to a future where all drugs are legal.

Just roll up to the store, and get yourself some cocaine!

We start with some history: for centuries a world without drug laws existed. Mark Kleiman, a professor at NYU who studies drug policy, explains that fear of drugs, and the desire to regulate them, really started in the last 1800’s. The rise of industry, advances in chemistry, and the invention of the hypodermic needle all fueled a rise in drug use and in drug fears.

Today, of course, some drugs are legal and others aren’t. Alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and pharmaceuticals are all legal. You probably already know what’s not.

But why are certain drugs legal in the United States and others not? The answer isn’t really science or public health research, but rather historical precedent and racism. Maia Szalavitz, the author of a book called Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, walks us through some of the racist campaigns against drugs that linked most of them with “violent” people of color. Take this New York Times story from 1914, headlined ““Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace: Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken to ‘Sniffing Since Deprived of Whiskey by Prohibition.’” White people said that drug use would make white women sleep with black, asian and latino men. That cocaine made black men impervious to bullets, and make them murder whites at the slightest provocation.

Today, the legacy of those racist ideas is still with us in the form of both drug laws and stereotypes about what a drug user looks like. Which impacts who goes to jail for drugs and who doesn’t.

Here are some statistics: in America, white people and black people are equally likely to use drugs. But black Americans are arrested at twice the rate of white americans for drug crimes. Not only that, but black Americans are more likely to be offered a plea deal that involves prison time than whites are for the same crimes, and are more likely to serve longer sentences than white Americans for the same offense.

Here’s another way to look at it: Black Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession. And when we’re looking at drug arrests, it’s a huge number of people. Between 1993 and 2011 there were 30 million arrests for drug crimes in the United States, and 24 million of those were for possession of drugs, not selling them.

And while Mark and Maia disagree on a lot of things regarding drug policy, this was one thing they actually agreed on: they both think that possession of small amounts of drugs should be decriminalized.

And I talked to a third person for this episode who agrees. And he’s not someone you’d expect to do so. Officer Tim Johnson, a retired cop. Tim is part of a program called LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He joined as soon as he retired, because despite making a whole lot of drug arrests while he was a cop, he didn’t feel like they were actually making a difference. And there’s data to support that feeling. Studies have shown that while we’ve arrested a whole lot of people for drug possession, the rate of drug abuse hasn’t gone down.

So Mark, Maia and Tim all think that possession should be decriminalized. And some countries have changed their drug laws this way — in 2001, Portugal decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all drugs: weed, cocaine, heroin, all of them. Now let’s be clear that this isn’t the same thing as legalizing drugs. These drugs are still illegal in Portugal but possessing them is not a criminal offense. Which means that if you get caught with drugs you are referred to a treatment program and issued a fine. As long as you’ve got drugs in a small amount, and you’re not selling them, you are not put in jail, and nothing goes on your criminal record. Which is a big deal in terms of scholarships, job opportunities, and all sorts of other stuff.

The results in Portugal have been really positive. Drug use has gone down since 2001, and HIV cases among drug users has also gone down. And Portugal has the second lowest overdose rate in the entire European Union. In Portugal, there are just three drug overdose deaths for every million citizens. Let’s compare that the United States. According to the CDC, in 2014 there were 147 deaths per million in the United States.

So the people who advocate for this future say that if you decriminalize possession you’ll see benefits across the board. And that argument is a sound one, one backed by plenty of public health data and now historical precedent. But beyond decriminalizing possession, everything starts to get really murky. How much should you allow people to have? And how should you regulate sellers? How should we test drugs, and which drugs should we make legal? Does punishment work to prevent people from doing drugs? And how should we handle those who do get addicted? This is where everything gets really confusing.

Later in the episode we tackle these questions, but first we take a detour to sports. What about performance enhancing drugs? Should those be legal too?

To discuss that, I called David Epstein, who’s a reporter at ProPublica and the author of a book called The Sports Gene. David has done a ton of reporting on doping, and he walks us through the three main arguments people make for why doping should be legalized. First, athletes that are doping are really fun to watch. Second, doping stories are a downer and a distraction from the escapism of sports. Third, it’s impossible to catch dopers anyway, so why both.

David doesn’t fully buy any of these arguments and we talk about why in the episode.

One of the things we talk about is whether or not we could split sports into “clean” and “doping” leagues and let players pick which ones they compete in. And in theory that actually exists for bodybuilding.

After our little detour into sports we come back to what it would be like to have fully, actually legalized drugs. How do you protect consumers? How do you make sure that drug companies don’t just make extremely addictive drugs and turn us all into hopeless addicts? Who should be allowed to sell these drugs, and what kind of training should they have. All that, and more.

We didn’t get to a ton of stuff in this episode too. So here are some links to topics that we discussed or  couldn’t touch on.

Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. The break music this week is by Fields Ohio. Special thanks this week to Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Tamara Krinsky, Elizabeth McKinstry, Mat Weller, Casey Broughton, Stephen Granade, Kevin Wojtaszek, Navneet Mathur, and Ari Baronofsky. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on TwitterFacebook or by email at info@flashforwardpod.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.

That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.


Flash Forward is a critically acclaimed podcast about the future.

In each episode, host Rose Eveleth takes on a possible (or not so possible) future scenario — everything from the existence of artificial wombs, to what would happen if space pirates dragged a second moon to Earth. What would the warranty on a sex robot look like? How would diplomacy work if we couldn’t lie? Could there ever be a black market for fecal transplants? (Complicated, it wouldn’t, and yes, respectively, in case you’re curious.) By combining audio drama and deep reporting, Flash Forward gives listeners an original and unique window into the future, how likely different scenarios might be, and how to prepare for what might come.

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