By Christopher Sauerwein. Writer, Member of LP Washington, Member of the LP Mises Caucus, Volunteer with Decriminalize Nature Seattle
The Libertarian Party of King County and the quickly-growing Libertarian Party Mises Caucus are (independently of each other) officially endorsing Decriminalize Nature Seattle (DNS). DNS wants to decriminalize naturally-occurring psychedelic substances like ayahuasca, psilocybin, and ibogaine in Seattle by the Spring of 2021, and you should join them. Decriminalize Nature Seattle is a politically-diverse grassroots organization based in the Seattle area. It now has some of the same political backing that helped cities like Denver and Oakland decriminalize psilocybin and other psychedelic substances and recently helped Portland decriminalize all drugs.
In addition to decriminalizing the private possession, consumption, and exchange of psychedelics, Decriminalize Nature Seattle also seeks to help create a path forward to allow clinicians, counselors, and doctors (among other professionals) to legally administer these substances as treatments without legal punishment or censure by the State.
With the decriminalization of natural entheogenic substances in Seattle, DNS hopes to dampen the City of Seattle's ability to use its police power to punish people for using or administering these substances as medicine or for using them for personal enrichment. It also hopes that decriminalization offers some relief for those who are suffering from depression and anxiety. Perhaps it can help break the cycle of drug addiction and homelessness, which have plagued major cities like Seattle for decades, thanks mainly to the federal government's domestic war on the American people: the drug war. At this point, it is essential to address the following questions: what is decriminalization, what is the libertarian stance on DNS goals, what is the economic analysis of decriminalization, and should you join the Libertarian Party of King County and the Mises Caucus in supporting Decriminalize Nature Seattle as well?
What is decriminalization?
Roughly speaking, decriminalization is the idea that specific criminal activities be henceforth legally handled in one of four ways:
be reclassified as a non-criminal infraction,
be clinically "treated" via some compulsory substitute sanction like rehabilitation rather than be punished by methods including imprisonment,
be only de facto decriminalized by the refusal of police (or judges) to enforce crimes that are still on the books, typically as a result of a change in police culture. (Woods, Pg. 675-696)
The fourth form of decriminalization, which is often classified as an alternative to, rather than a subcategory of decriminalization, is legalization, whereby the legislature removes all legal restrictions from the law books entirely. This fully legalizes the activity and removes all police authority for arrest and all judicial authority for sanctioning.
As a result of recent cannabis legalization throughout the country, criticisms of legalization have been leveled against it, including the path paved for heavy taxation and strangling regulation (both of which, of course, are un-libertarian). The "commercialization" of cannabis (typically a left-wing criticism) is also common. Thus, decriminalization is popular with both left-leaning political groups and libertarians. While it is true that the legalization of cannabis did result in heavy taxation and regulation, decriminalization is no silver-bullet.
Decriminalization often comes with costs and hidden effects that may not be immediately known to the legislature or political activist groups. For instance, decriminalization does not prevent police from still enforcing or abusing the law during the arrest phase of the legal process (Ibid.); the reclassification only affects the sentencing awarded by the judge on "the back end" during the sanctioning phase (Ibid., P.696). Decriminalization does not necessarily address the "front end" harassment and abuse that occurs when police enforce decriminalized offenses. For example, decriminalized traffic offenses are routinely used to enforce drug war legislation and frequently lead to dangerous interactions with the public. This is a troubling fact of decriminalization, to say the least.
Choosing to support decriminalization or legalization movements.
The choice grassroots organizations have in choosing between legalization or decriminalization is either: 1) the potential heavy taxation and regulation of the production of the decriminalized good or service (and likewise the "commercialization" which anti-capitalists and spiritual gurus are sure to object to,) along with virtually zero contact with police or sanctioning by judges as a result of using or selling the substance, or 2) no taxation or regulation on the one hand, but on the other, virtually no improvement in the police enforcement phase of the legal process; only the sentencing or sanctioning phase is "decriminalized" (Ibid.) And even then, in the case of substitution (the second type of decriminalization given above,) police funnel offenders into the court system, which subsequently filters them into ineffective treatment centers as substitutes for criminal sanctions. Sadly, these treatments typically fail, and the cycle spirals out of control. With this in mind, it quickly becomes apparent that none of these decriminalization efforts are likely to produce libertarian ends or economically efficient outcomes. Thus, any decriminalization effort that incrementally moves society closer to these ends should be supported by libertarians, providing the means of doing so does not increase the amount of suffering already being inflicted by current policy (Rothbard, 1956). Moreover, libertarians are doing no additional harm by supporting either decriminalization or legalization. They are reducing aggression committed by the state by supporting either.
Decriminalize Nature Seattle supports a decriminalization effort (and not a legalization effort) for various strategic and ideological reasons. DNS is working directly with the Seattle City Council to seek to make the possession, exchange, and use of certain naturally-occurring entheogenic substances a non-criminal offense and make enforcement among the lowest of Seattle Police priorities. While it could be argued that police remain able to arrest and harass the public, the suggested policy change of DNS would predictably reduce the city's ability to punish offenders via criminal sentences and sanctions such as jail and the ever-pernicious felony charge. The DNS effort could also potentially decrease the number of arrests and police contacts made, but this remains less certain; the DNS resolution attempts to address this matter to a degree.
This policy change could provide a better method for people struggling with addiction and depression in Seattle to find more effective treatments than the current approaches available to them or those forced upon them via drug court. These outcomes are all certainly in line with the libertarian principle of self-ownership and private property rights, despite the shortcomings of either option. While it does seem that legalization offers the greatest chance of minimizing harm to individuals and would maximize the substance's availability, the DNS decriminalization effort is compatible with libertarianism. Lastly, participating in the decriminalization effort helps spread libertarian principles to those who may not have otherwise been exposed to them. In addition to the libertarian legal argument for supporting the Seattle Decriminalize Nature movement and the pragmatic view of spreading the libertarian message, a strong economic argument can be made for supporting DNS as well.
White and black markets: economics and counter-economics.
Today, the support of black and grey markets tends to be emphasized heavily in agorist/counter-economic circles and mainstream libertarian groups. The agorist theory generally focuses on two central claims: 1) black and grey markets help meet consumer demand for various goods and services where the state has outlawed such goods and services, and 2) black and grey market operations offer the strategic benefit of overwhelming the state in its enforcement efforts and undermining its authority, which could ultimately lead to its collapse (once some unknown critical mass of counter-economic activity is reached) (Konkin, Pg. 65-66). While it is true that black and grey markets help meet consumer demand and improve economic efficiency, it is less clear whether or not counter-economics weakens the state at all, let alone bring it crumbling down. (Rothbard even went as far as to say: "It is possible that the Soviet black market, for example, is so productive that it keeps the entire monstrous Soviet regime afloat, and that without it, the Soviet system would collapse." (Rothbard, 1978)). It is more apparent that if black markets are better than a command economy, white markets are superior because 1) legalizing non-violent markets is more justifiable (that is to say libertarian,) and 2) they are more efficient and maximize social welfare by ensuring no one is prevented from engaging in voluntary exchanges (Rothbard, 1956).
But this is not to say that counter-economics accomplishes nothing; to the contrary, as Miguel Duque, who is the sitting Chair of the Libertarian Party King County and an organizer for the Mises Caucus, pointed out, a great deal is owed to counter-economics. Counter-economics has allowed medical doctors and professionals to follow their consciences and Hippocratic oaths illegally to treat patients using psychedelics in underground, counter-economic medical networks and continue the much-needed research outlawed with the war on drugs (Pollan Pg. 221-230). Counter-economics had enabled poor and marginalized individuals to survive when white-market work was unavailable or insufficient. Counter-econ has allowed people to secretively learn to cultivate psychedelic plants and fungi, to perfect storage methods, and to establish proper dosages (thereby improving harm reduction efforts). It has enabled people to undergo significant spiritual and mystical experiences and grow as individuals (Ibid.).
One of the few options libertarians have, is to support any decriminalization or legalization effort to produce any "non-violent" (as Konkin defines them) black or grey market goods or services. Agorists can still engage in agorist practices after decriminalization by only transacting under the table, for example, at a significantly lower risk of arrest to themselves, if they wish to insist agorist methods bring down the state. (There could still be other significant risks of arrest for conducting agorist operations in a white market (e.g., tax evasion)). Agorists and libertarians should all support DNS and other similar decriminalization movements wherever possible.
Conclusion: libertarian ends via libertarian means.
From a libertarian standpoint, the ideal legal arrangement surrounding the production, possession, sale, and use of psychedelics does not necessarily favor transacting on black markets. It is not necessarily decriminalization, nor is it even legalization in the hopes of treating depression and addiction per se. The proper libertarian position depends upon one thing: private property rights. Only private property owners should decide if, when, and where these substances are, or are not, permitted to be produced, bought, sold, or used. Private property rights are our ends. Considering that the state currently prevents the requisite natural order borne of private property rights from arising, libertarians must settle for the next best thing -the thing that is most ethical and just, as well as the thing that decreases state power- and work to incrementally bring about an ethical private property system by any libertarian means available.
While it is true that black markets are better than a command economy or stifling fascist US regulation, and while it is true that white markets are better than black markets, and although legalization may be preferable to decriminalization, and though it might be preferable that libertarians not endorse non-libertarian groups, it is also true that supporting the decriminalization of entheogens in Seattle is a valid libertarian means, given the other alternatives. This endorsement of DNS is indeed a significant step in the right direction to achieve the libertarian ends of spreading the libertarian message, allowing markets to flourish unhampered, and to move closer to an ethical pro-private property legal structure.
Libertarians supporting the DNS effort allows Seattleites to be slightly more secure in their property and provide better opportunities to use their bodies as they see fit:
patients may find relief from drug abuse and depression,
marginalized groups may have a better outlook on their future,
the endless cycle of Seattle drug "rehabilitation" may finally have an end in sight,
fewer Seattle resources may be wasted on punishing people who possess or use these naturally-occurring plants,
the legal monopolies of pharmaceutical corporations might be challenged,
people may be freer to embrace and explore their spirituality,
finally, there may even be a hint of unity across heterogeneous political groups working to weaken the state's power over the individual and achieve a (slightly) more pro-property (i.e., libertarian) future in Seattle
To volunteer with Decriminalize Nature Seattle and read their draft ordinance resolution, visit their website. To get involved with the Libertarian Party of King County and the LP Mises Caucus, visit their hyper-linked websites.
Konkin, Samuel E., III. New Libertarian Manifesto. 4th ed., Huntington Beach, CA, KOPUBCO, 2006.
Libertarian Party Mises Caucus. Libertarian Party Mises Caucus, https://lpmisescaucus.com/d. Accessed 18 January 2021.
Libertarian Party of King County. Libertarian Party of King County, https://www.lpkingcounty.com/. Accessed 18 January 20121.
Rothbard, Murray N. "Strategies for a Libertarian Victory." Libertarian Review, vol. 7, no. 7, August, 1978, 18–24, 34, https://mises.org/library/strategies-libertarian-victory. Accessed 19 January 2021.
Rothbard, Murray N. "Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics." n The Logic of Action One: Method, Money, and the Austrian School, 1956, pp. 211-255. Mises Institute, https://cdn.mises.org/Toward%20a%20Reconstruction%20of%20Utility%20and%20Welfare%20Economics_3.pdf. Accessed 21 January 2021.
Rothbard, Rothbard N. "Konkin on Libertarian Strategy: A Critique of The New Libertarian Manifesto." Strategy of the New Libertarian Alliance, vol. 1, 1981, pp. 3-11.
Woods, Jordan Blair. Decriminalization, Police Authority, and Routine Traffic Stops. 62 ed., vol. Rev. 672, UCLA Law Review, 2015.