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In the great American anti-drug tradition of Nancy Reagan and William Bennett, Jacob Sullum says parents shouldn’t let their kids smoke pot—at least until they’re in their late teens.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with introducing your kids to marijuana at that age, so long as they’re responsible,” says Sullum. Same goes for opium tea. “As for coca tea, it wouldn’t be reckless to let kids use it a little earlier,” he says.

Did he just say coca tea? For kids? Who is this fellow, anyway, some kind of berserker?

People who consider illicit drugs a one-way ticket to Degradationville will think so. But Sullum, a syndicated newspaper columnist, Reason magazine senior editor, and author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, is no pie-eyed proselytizer of Furry Freak Brothers-style pharmaceutical bliss. A libertarian, he considers the “war on drugs” an unworkable substitute for personal responsibility. Furthermore, he argues, most Americans who puff, snort, or otherwise ingest illegal drugs do so without suffering any baleful consequences, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to the federal government.

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Sullum, who lives in Fairfax, Va., with his wife, Michele Sullum, and their daughter, Francine, bases his conclusions on the available scientific evidence. But his levelheaded approach stems from his own experiences with substances, licit and otherwise. That Sullum is a “moderate pipe smoker” but doesn’t “do it habitually” hints that we’re not dealing with an addictive personality. Similarly, his experiences with pot (“I never let its use interfere with my life”) and LSD (“It was really cool—definitely fun”) were overwhelmingly positive. Small wonder he has no truck with the doomsayers.

In Saying Yes, Sullum writes that during his undergraduate years at a major American university in the late ’70s, he never met anyone with a drug problem. Geesh, I tell him, I was in college then, and virtually everybody I knew had a drug problem—including me. I suspect him of being one of those people who wouldn’t know a drug problem if it vomited bong water in his lap.

“That was my experience,” he insists. “And statistically speaking, it’s the normal experience….It’s voodoo pharmacology to hold that drugs deprive people of the ability to use them sanely.” Backing up his argument with hard data, Sullum methodically debunks our sturdiest drug myths, demonstrating that crack and amphetamines don’t turn people into psychotic killers, ecstasy doesn’t lead to (God forbid!) casual sex, and pot won’t turn you into an oversized Jerry Garcia Chia Pet.

Still, even your staunchest legalization advocate may question some of his recommendations for “managing moderation.” I’m for legalization, I tell him, but I’d think twice before sitting my (purely hypothetical) teenager down to a cup of coca tea.

“Coca tea is very mild,” he responds, with effects “nothing beyond what you’d experience drinking a caffeine beverage. Kids need to know the facts about drugs, and that includes alcohol….[T]he government expects people to drink alcohol responsibly when they turn 21, but makes it illegal for them to learn how to do that. How are they going to be responsible drinkers if they have no experience drinking?”

The same would hold for drugs, he says, should they be legalized. “Which is not to say that you give LSD to your 12-year-old. You act responsibly and use common sense.” Selling this to a fearful public won’t be easy, but Sullum believes “there are Americans who can be persuaded, who have believed what the government has told them, and who, if presented with contrary evidence, will have a change of heart” about drugs.

Sullum, in other words, is hopeful. And you can put that in your pipe and smoke it. In moderation, of course. —Michael Little