I was sitting on my friend’s couch with a huge bong between my legs. A Beatles instrumental hummed from his Jambox speaker as I burned the herbs in the bowl, let the smoke fill my lungs, and blew a thick white cloud out into the air. Within minutes I was feeling the effects. An innocuous comment about a bathroom made me laugh uncontrollably, and the couch felt like it held cushions made of feathers and baby butts. The drawings on his walls began to spin and bend. It was one of the best feelings of intoxication I’d ever experienced. And the best part? It was 100% legal.
I wasn’t smoking marijuana, but one of the many herbs that can be purchased in a smoke shop or online. The one I used is called Salvia divinorum, and procuring the substance is as easy as a Google search and few clicks of a mouse. Salvia is one of many extremely powerful legal intoxicants, and their effects are often comparable to those of illegal substances. The legality of these drugs means two things: United States drug policies are far from comprehensive and have nothing to do with the intoxication caused by the substance, and if you’re over 18, you can get really high and there’s nothing anyone can do about.
The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy claims that though drug use is on the decline, it still negatively affects American society. “Drug use affects every sector of society, straining our economy, our health care and criminal justice systems, and endangering the futures of young people,” states its website.
This doesn’t change the fact that most Americans think that the government has failed to effectively regulate drugs. According to a 2013 Rasmussen poll, 82 percent of Americans think that the US is losing the war on drugs. Making a substance illegal does not make it impossible to obtain, and it’s very possible to develop an addiction to the medical drugs prescribed by doctors.
But there’s a third layer of this failure that isn’t talked about as much. Despite the massive variety of intoxicating substances, most of them fall into one or more of three classes: stimulants, depressants, and hallucinogens. Within these categories, legal intoxicants can have the same effects as illegal ones. This is especially true of stimulants and depressants, because feelings of energetic mania produced by stimulants, or relaxed complacency produced by depressants, are much simpler feelings than those induced by hallucinating. The drug policy of the American government has remained ignorant of drugs like salvia with the same effects as drugs that are already illegal.
Ideally, the government would make all drugs legal to use. Rather than assume that all drug users are dangers to society, we should instead hold users more accountable for their actions by giving extended sentences to people who commit crimes while under the influence. While it’s true that certain drugs can make people aggressive and more prone to crime, extended sentences would solve this problem in two ways: first, by deterring people from getting irresponsibly intoxicated in the first place, and second, by keeping people who don’t care about those sentences off the street for longer.
Among the alleged dangers of drug use—dependence, impaired driving, increased likelihood of violent or dangerous behavior—very few of them are linked to the actual purchase and consumption of the drug, but rather the actions of the intoxicated individual. This is where we see the largest failing of U.S. drug policy. People can be arrested and imprisoned for decades just for possessing drugs. Even if they had no intention of using them or distributing them, they could be imprisoned for up to two years due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. So if these legal substances can create the exact same kind of intoxicated individual, they aren’t any more or less dangerous than illegal substances. The exact kind of intoxication that the government is trying to prevent has slipped through the cracks.
Despite the dangers associated with them, I am a proponent of legal intoxicants for creative and intellectual benefits. Responsible, controlled intoxication can broaden one’s horizons. It can open doors to feelings and perspectives that would normally be beyond the scope of cognition. They can nourish one’s spirit and give one a greater sense of connection with the universe.
Drug reform is inevitable, and future changes may make it more difficult or dangerous to acquire these substances. So try them now, before Uncle Sam takes them away.