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A Rights-Respecting Approach to Fentanyl Abuse

Dangerous fentanyl is largely a problem of the violent and uncontrolled black market caused by drug prohibition.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
This article originally was published on March 1, 2022, 2020, at the Colorado Freedom Report, and ported here on May 19, 2024.

We are not surprised when Progressives attempt to micromanage people's lives through force of government. Progressives often treat normal people as too stupid to manage their own lives without the "help" of professional bureaucrats and enforcers, who know better. Many Progressives treat government as Big Nanny, tasked with the job of saving us rubes from ourselves. My question for many of today's conservatives is, why do you play the same game?

Here I am talking about fentanyl, the synthetic opioid intended mainly for treating cancer pain that, when abused, can be deadly. And, make no mistake, it can be deadly, especially when taken in unknown quantities or mixed with other unknown substances.

The potential deadliness of fentanyl does not change the fact that merely possessing or consuming it violates the rights of no one. The rights violations occur when government agents arrest people and lock them in cages for possessing fentanyl. In a just world, such violent actions rightly would be categorized with such crimes as assault, kidnapping, and wrongful imprisonment. Shamefully, conservatives often take the lead in endorsing such abuses.

Reporter Andrew Kenney provides some of the Colorado background: "Republican Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, . . . along with some prominent law-enforcement officials, has put the blame [for more fentanyl-related deaths] on HB19-1263, a 2019 law that was backed by Democrats and Republicans. That change reduced penalties for possession of less than four grams of nearly all Schedule I and Schedule II drugs, including ecstasy, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl."

Kenney also reveals why some Coloradans support harsh criminal penalties for drug possession: "Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, said the 2019 law has led to more overdose deaths by making it harder to punish dealers. While that law didn't change the punishment for dealing drugs, it did take away an easier route for prosecutors: In the past, they could still get a felony charge for simple possession, without having to prove intent to distribute."

Did you get that? Some prosecutors want to treat possession of fentanyl as a proxy crime for the distribution of fentanyl. In other words, prosecutors don't want to be bothered with proving in a court of law that someone actually sold or intended to sell the drug. And what of people who possess the drug without intending to distribute it? They too will get caught up in the drug war's legal grinder, at the discretion of prosecutors, of course. This is a system of capricious power, not a system of justice. Generally such policies fall hardest on minorities and the poor.

What happened to the "from my cold dead hands" conservatives? What happened to the "my body, my choice" conservatives? What happened to the conservatives who give a damn about liberty?

If you listen to the gun banners, they often say they want to outlaw possession of guns—why?—well, to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands, of course. In other words, they want to treat gun possession as a proxy crime for the careless or criminal misuse of guns. Sound familiar?

I agree with many conservatives that government has no business mandating vaccines, even though I am enthusiastically pro-vaccine. (Conditional mandates by private businesses and by government operations are a different story.) And yet Covid-19 killed 12,508 Coloradans as of February 28. As of January, Coloradans were "16.5 times less likely to die from Covid" if vaccinated with three doses, according to state data.

A well-enforced, universal vaccine mandate could have saved thousands of lives over the past year, several times the number of fentanyl-related deaths. In principle, there is little difference between government mandating the use of vaccines and prohibiting the unauthorized use of fentanyl, "for people's own good." Both actions are violations of liberty and of individual rights. The difference between me and many of today's unprincipled conservatives is that when I say, "My body, my choice," I mean it.

Intentional or negligent distribution of dangerous substances is a different matter. For example, if someone sold you a gun branded Remington, but knew the gun really was a cheap imitation, that would be fraud. If the gun blew up in your face and caused serious bodily injury, the seller probably could be prosecuted for criminal negligence. Certainly the government plays an appropriate role in cracking down on such fraud.

Dangerous fentanyl is largely a problem of the violent and uncontrolled black market caused by drug prohibition. The drug warriors are not fixing the problem, they are helping to create it.

Consider this line from the Denver Post: "Approximately half of the 1,581 Colorado drug overdose deaths last year that have been recorded thus far involved fentanyl, the provisional data shows. Of those 1,581 people, 618 died of methamphetamine, 227 died of cocaine, 167 died of heroin and 55 of alcohol."

First notice that some people do die from the legal drug alcohol, although relatively few. People can poison themselves over many years by consuming too much alcohol, or they can kill themselves all at once by heavy binge drinking. These days hardly anyone calls for the prohibition of the drug alcohol despite its potential deadliness. (Indeed, my wife and I enjoy Coyote Gold margaritas, produced by Maureen Schaffer, the wife of the former Republican congressman Bob Schaffer.) And, if government did prohibit it, we would expect the black-market alcohol that arose to be radically more dangerous, of unknown potency and mixed with other dangerous substances. Rather than relatively safe alcohol being sold by peaceable people such as Maureen Schaffer, extremely dangerous alcohol would be sold by violent people like Al Capone.

Notice another term in the Post's article: "involving." Usually the problem is not fentanyl per se, it is the fact that people buying drugs often have no idea what they're getting. That's the nature of the black market spawned by the drug war.

According to Adams County District Attorney Brian Mason, the drug that killed five people in Commerce City was "possibly masked as cocaine" yet it contained fentanyl, in the words of reporter Allison Sherry. I agree that someone knowingly or negligently selling a drug tainted with substances unknown to the buyers should be prosecuted. That's comparable to the case of the fraudulently branded gun.

Mason told Sherry, "We're finding fentanyl in cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine and oxycontin and, even in limited circumstances, we found it in marijuana. This is a huge public safety crisis." Yes, it is. It is a crisis created by drug warriors, who set the context for the dangerous black market in drugs. We needn't let those who knowingly or negligently sell tainted substances off the hook just because they operate in a black market created by drug prohibition. Both sides of the problem—the prohibitionists who created the black markets and the sellers of tainted drugs—bear moral responsibility for the resulting deaths.

If we really care about saving people's lives, the answer is obvious: We need to roll back drug prohibition across the board and thereby eliminate the dangerous black markets now killing people via cartel violence and tainted drugs. But, to recognize that solution, conservatives would have to do more than pay lip service to liberty and individual rights; they would have to take those principles seriously.

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