[Note: This is an expanded, edited version of a shorter piece. Originally meant as a one page pamphlet for the homeless of Austin in response to a meeting conducted by Austin Police Department, I have since enlarged its focus and explorations upon the enumerated topics. It is by design something meant for the mass-man, so this cannot be treated as an exhaustive or purely academic creation. The original, for those interested in printing their one, can be accessed here.]

As of September 1st of 2015, the synthetic drug called “K2” or “Spice” will be illegal in the state of Texas. Though the DEA has attempted to ban the drug on a nationwide level in the past, legal loopholes prevented this ban from being effective. The state of Texas has schemed itself up a solution; the prohibition of synthetic cannabis.. Most people victimized by the prohibition will likely suffer minimally; either via fine, community service, or up to 180 days in jail. And yet, such suffering is harsh and unwarranted for a victimless crime, especially if you are already down and out. For someone who is poor or homeless, 180 days in jail can mean the loss of property, income, and opportunity, in addition to the greater injustice: the loss of liberty. What warrants a perversion of justice like this?

According to officers of the Austin Police Department, this prohibition has been brought about to protect the people. It is a public health emergency, they say. It is a burden on local emergency services, they plead. And yet, there is little discussion of the ethics of their prohibition. Why people choose to indulge in K2 is not discussed; policy enforcers only care for the will of the politicians.  Whether or not the government has the authority to imprison those who smoke plants, fake or otherwise, is not even an afterthought. It hardly matters, though, for as the Austrian Economic Ludwig von Mises wrote:

Once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments.

Can we understand this development as a proper act of government? Government, the institution of guidance, is established to protect life, liberty, and property. Put another way, it is the institution of law towards harmony. This institution of law is correctly described by Frédéric Bastiat as the following:

The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.

In this regard, does the prohibition of K2 act in accordance with law? It cannot be so. Since it is the prohibition of a good purchased or produce, it cannot be a protection of property. Since it prevents the individual from living in accordance with his will in a manner that harms no one, it cannot be a protection of liberty. A protection of life, then? Hardly so. A man who indulges in K2 is the same as a man who drinks whiskey or smokes cigarettes, though the latter two substances kill far more men than the former. He does not end the lives of others by using K2; at best he merely reduces the length of his own. If we are to say that this is a protection, a preemptive protection, of life, then we can only conclude that the state need also prohibit alcohol, tobacco, and automobiles, since the use of all three have clearly ended the lives of so many Americans. And yet the state does not do so, nor would the average person claim that it must. This ought to make the reader very suspecious of the idea that by prohibiting people from using K2, the state only has the best of intentions.

Why do people use K2, alcohol, or marijuana? Clearly it is because these things give people satisfaction of a demand. Why would a person use K2 specifically? It has been my experience working a place with high levels of K2 usage for about two years now, that K2 usage is quite predictable and easily understandable. The average man who smokes K2 is not particularly wealthy or affluent. He likely does not purchase high quality alcohol or tobacco. If he smokes marijuana, he probably does not have access to the high quality kind produced in places with legal or medical marijuana. The man who smokes K2 does so because he has so few choices available.

I propose that we apply logic to better understand the situation at hand. Let’s return to our K2 user. Our K2 user typically buys it on the street or at a headshop, though he can buy it most conveniently and ready-to-go with the former. He could want marijuana but cannot afford it due to the artificially increased prices produced by the prohibition of it. He could afford marijuana but if he is caught with it, he may be put in a cage. So he turns to a cheap, currently (though not for long) legal substitute. Soon this substitute will be illegal and demand for it will increase due to its tightened supply. His available choices now shrink further. How could we reduce his usage of K2? The legalization of marijuana. In the above scenarios, it would deter him from choosing K2, or at least give him another legal choice of purchase. With marijuana being legal, it will increase the supply of it through competition. When production is widespread enough, it will reduce in cost. Much as one has the choice of different alcohols of different type and price, so too does this occur with marijuana. This would turn the K2 smoker away from the black market for K2 and towards the safer, more abundant high. I wonder, how many people die of K2-related illnesses in places with legal or highly decriminalized marijuana? I reckon the number to be quite few.

The prohibition of K2, therefore, helps no one but the state. It will create prisoner laborers, parolees, and dependents of the state, all done through the creation of laws that turn innocent men into criminals (and potentially felons). It hurts the non-consumer because as the tax-payer, he will subsidize the cost of imprisoning his fellow creatures. It hurts consumers, for now they will have to go through the black market. In this black market they will have to settle for dangerous substitutes and additives, which otherwise could be avoided if marijuana were legal and subject to the laws of supply and demand, and free competition of production. Much like in the prohibition of alcohol in the beginning of the 20th Century, the prohibition of K2 will not eliminate the use of said substance. As Austrian Economist Mark Thornton describes the prohibition of alcohol:

Prohibition made alcohol illegal, but it did not eliminate it. Illegal producers known as moonshiners sold their illegal product to illegal distributors known as bootleggers…The process was overseen by organized crime syndicates and street gangs who paid bribes to corrupt politicians and law enforcement. Respect for the law sank to an all-time low.

Sound familiar? One can see the same processes operating today, from dangerous chemical alterations by street dealers to an adversarial relationship with the police enforcers of today. Piles of tobacco leaves litter the sidewalks of Austin’s homeless shelter, the remnants of K2 blunts created by black market dealers who peddle to people looking for shelter. The smoke of these blunts choke the lungs of nearby pedestrians, who react to the insecticides and poisons sprayed onto the blunts by said dealers. Policy enforcers in paddy-wagons regularly patrol the area, both to intimidate but also to fill their holding cells with men in a zombie-like stupor. All this, apparently, in the name of the public good.

To conclude, in short, I will again quote Mark Thornton, who can summarize the future of K2 prohibition with his comments upon the prohibition of alcohol:

Prohibition did not achieve its goals. Instead, it added to the problems it was intended to solve and supplanted other ways of addressing problems. The only beneficiaries of Prohibition were bootleggers, crime bosses, and the forces of big government.

Further Readings:

http://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/alcohol-prohibition-was-failure

https://mises.org/library/economics-prohibition

https://mises.org/library/prohibition-caused-greatness-gatsby

https://mises.org/library/how-should-prices-be-determined

https://mises.org/library/competition-and-economists

http://bastiat.org/en/the_law.html#SECTION_G004

http://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Black_market