This article is the fourth and final installment in the symposium “What’s Wrong With Drugs?” Earlier, Gavin McInnes argued that drugs are bad for people and society, and that’s why they should be legalized; Matthew Feeney weighed in with a discussion of self-ownership and drug use; Doug Bandow kicked of this discussion with an analysis of the drug war (read below). Christopher Fisher introduced the symposium here.
A movement is now afoot across the nation to legalize the growing and smoking of cannabis—marijuana.
The best argument for it that I can see is prudential. Not all immoral actions can feasibly be proscribed by law without causing more harm than good. Any state, for example, that attempted to outlaw the smallish vice of letting one’s children stay up too late would have to be quite tyrannical in its reach and its force. And so advocates for legalizing marijuana say that the war against it has fed the growth of the State, filled its prisons to bursting, and set up organized crime with another lucrative business, without appreciable effect upon the very habit the war has been waged to stifle.
I doubt that the latter is true, since many people even now will refrain from an illegal activity out of respect for the law; for them the matter never rises to the level of a critical decision. Marijuana is illegal, and there’s an end of it. I’ll defer judgment on the rest of the argument. If advocates for legalization want to say that it is a stupid and dangerous thing to use marijuana, but that it is even stupider and more dangerous for the State to make its use illegal and to turn users into criminals, let them make that point honestly and we can try to reason it out.
But I suspect that that is not what’s really at issue. The advocates are really advocates. They presume that the role of government is to grant to individuals as much leeway or license as possible to pursue the gratification of their desires, and to do this without examining the nature of those desires, their moral effect upon the human person, or the injury they may do to the common good. Whatever I want gains a prescriptive claim for legality simply because I want it, and all other considerations must be at best secondary.
It is hard to see how any genuine society or culture can be built up out of the atoms of self-will, since the friendship and the piety it demands and fosters depends upon human beings who see themselves as fulfilled not by gratifying their peculiar desires, but by love; not by consuming, but by being given away. But there is a strange and telling analogy between a people who measure their worth by how much wealth they amass and those who measure their “happiness” by how many desires they gratify. Both of those peoples misconstrue liberty. They see it as something extrinsic to their persons. It is a state-sanctioned empty field. It is defined, or rather undefined, by what the State cannot tell you that you cannot do.
It should strike us with a shock that this view of law has a pretty meager heritage. The Greeks and Romans knew nothing of it. The Jewish prophets and scribes knew nothing of it. The Christian jurists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance knew nothing of it. Even as late as the nineteenth century, despite the state-of-nature fantasies of Hobbes and Locke, most people assumed that one of the purposes of law, if not the principal purpose, was to be a teacher: to help make men good. They knew, too, that goodness was more than a superficial affability. Goodness required the exercise of the virtues, and virtues are hard-won.
Here is John Ruskin writing in Unto This Last (1862) on what makes for the true wealth of a nation: “That country is the richest,” he says, “which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.” Self-will—whether it manifests itself as avarice or lust or gluttony does not matter—cannot produce that human wealth. “All political economy founded on self-interest,” he says, and here we can see how curiously indistinguishable are doctrinaire liberals of the wallet and the belly, “[is] but the fulfillment of that which once brought schism into the Policy of angels, and ruin into the Economy of Heaven.”
Ruskin reminds us of realities that cannot be captured by counters or a tape measure. Suppose for instance we lived in the brave new world of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel. The most frightening thing about that world is its relentless efficiency in delivering to its members an easy gratification of base desires. So we are treated to a scene of mock religious fervor at the Fordson Community Singery, where twelve men and women get stoned on strawberry ice cream soma (the heroin of that world), rouse themselves to a delirious ecstasy, dance in a circle, and slap one another’s buttocks, singing,
Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One.
Boys at one with girls at peace;
Orgy-porgy gives release.
Is that love we are looking at? Or virtue? Do we want to be such people?
We cannot escape the moral directives of our nature, no more than we can escape the force of gravity. The rich nation is not the one that produces three hundred million self-absorbed men and women gratifying themselves at the poolside, but the one that raises men and women of nobility and virtue; the former is a culture of death, the latter a culture of life. “The true home question,” says Ruskin, “to every capitalist and to every nation, is not ‘how many ploughs have you?’—but, ‘where are your furrows?’ ” What have you made that is protective of life? He does not mean mere bodily survival, and he certainly does not mean the energy with which people scratch where they itch. Life, for Ruskin, is the heroic movement of the human spirit toward what is good and beautiful. It implies what we will die to protect, for “the man who does not know when to die, does not know how to live.”
Is that it, then? Are we to die for a longer tether for the dog in the field? For that is what the legalization of marijuana is, morally considered.
The obvious objection is offered: “Marijuana is no more obnoxious than alcohol! If you condone the latter, you must condone the former.” I deny both the fact and the reasoning. People may take a drink and not get drunk; but nobody smokes a joint of marijuana without achieving the intention, which is to get high. But if it is not feasible for a people to outlaw one bad thing because of the peculiarities of the culture, that does not require them to legalize another bad thing to boot. We might as logically say that both ought to be made illegal. That is nonsense. The law does what it can do, and the fact that it cannot do everything is no reason for it not to do anything at all.
Let the advocates of legalization argue that it is, for practical purposes, a necessary evil and we will take up the matter on those grounds. But let them also concede that, even if it should prove necessary, which I doubt, it is still an evil, and we would be better off without the drug, and certainly better off without the debased view of the world that sees the drug as a mere thing to consume, that places self-gratification and self-absorption above self-denial and a love for others.
And those others we must consider most carefully are the young, and the poor, and those who are morally or physically weak. These need our most vigorous help in attaining the virtues that make for personal and social liberty. But instead we offer them the cheap ticket to the basement peep show. We do not instruct them in industriousness; we give them the lottery and the casino. We do not instruct them in purity; we hand out packs of rubbers.
Should we legalize marijuana? What kind of people do we want to be? That question must be answered first. Unless it no longer matters to us whether we are great or only hulking; whether we breathe the air of liberty or cough and sputter in licentiousness; whether we honor the wise or the doped.
Anthony M. Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books), and translator of classic works including Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Legalize Pot. It’s Bad for You
By Gavin McInnes
There is so much smoke surrounding the marijuana debate, it’s almost impossible to see what the hell is going on. The pro-decriminalization crowd will only call it “cannabis” and pretend that it’s an invaluable medicine. The anti-pot crowd calls it a very dangerous drug that will drag America into a basement of failure. They’re both wrong. Ganja is bad for you but that doesn’t mean we need to keep it illegal. As with all drugs, the long-term gains of legalization outweigh the costs of seemingly condoning a vice.
Let’s start with this ridiculous “cannabis as medicine” contention. It’s probably good for giving skinny people the munchies but does anybody truly believe maryjane makes good pain medicine? As I pointed out on O’Reilly, getting a tattoo after smoking a joint is like being murdered with a tiny chainsaw. Pot doesn’t dull pain—it accentuates it. Weed makes everything freakier, which is why driving after a doob makes keeping up with the speed limit feel like NASCAR. It’s also why the Olympics should never consider it a performance-enhancing drug. If anything, you deserve more gold medals if you pulled that off after smoking a blunt.
So, the argument ultimately begins with being honest and not pretending that sensimilla is harmless. Back in the 80s and 90s, when I smoked an adequate amount, herb made movies funnier and sex way, way, better. It also killed ambition. The real potheads from my college years are still there. This is because a human being is developing more than just his frontal lobe in his late teens and early twenties. He’s shaping what kind of adult he’s going to become. That’s also why they call those your “formative years.” If you’re baked out of your mind on the couch from 15 to 25, the odds are you’re never going to get off it. This was true of the cheeba of yesteryear but it is three times as true now that wacky tobaccy is three times as strong. I recently smoked a bowl to test the difference from my days to nowadays and I almost had a panic attack. As I wrote in my column that week, pot is more like acid now. I had to lie on the cement floor of my office with my shirt off and would have called 911 if I could have felt my hands. It was exactly like a bad acid trip. But just the fact that something makes you feel bad doesn’t mean that it should be illegal. Even Obama knows this. I’ve had hangovers that could be on the local news. That doesn’t mean I need the state to deny my access to Maker’s Mark.
We are living in a “Tread on Me” epoch where anything that hurts someone’s feelings should be banned by the state. We trust the state to take our kids away if we use dirty language in front of them or name them after a seriously terrible guy. Free speech hurts—so let’s ban it. Bullying lead to some suicides, so let’s trust the authorities to eradicate it entirely. They seem to think they can end terrorism. Why not drugs? Because the government is incapable of virtually everything. The private sector keeps proving that it is better at providing energy, roads, education—and as we’re presently learning, health care. The state has repeatedly demonstrated its incompetence in the drug war, which is well-documented in the critically acclaimed film The House I Live In. In 2009, we incarcerated 1.9 million people, 1.3 million of whose crimes were drug-related; half of those crimes were related to marijuana. These were fathers leaving children who will eventually learn to repeat their dads’ mistakes. We are creating a nation of single parents where everything is illegal and everyone is at risk of going to jail. In short, the drug war isn’t making us safer. It’s making us criminals.
To legalize drugs, as citizens have successfully done in Portugal, would free a lot more than 1.3 million people. Right now, drug dealers coming in at the ground floor are looking at $10 at McDonald’s an hour—or $100 working for the guy in the fur coat. In truth, drug dealing is a pyramid scheme where there are dozens of losers squeaking by for every kingpin at the top. By legitimizing the top brass’ profession, we take away the kingpin’s bait, and the kid in the ghetto is left deciding between $10 at McDonald’s or $12 at a local marijuana dispensary. The 1.3 million stat above represents clearly defined drug arrests—but how many people are in jail for crimes tangentially related to the drug war? From the fist fights on the street where one gang has encroached on another’s turf, to the rookie gangster who blows a rival’s head off to establish himself in the gang’s hierarchy, I’d wager we’ve barely begun to understand what legalization would do to our crime level. Gun advocates that say gun control means that only the bad guys get guns. They should be saying the same thing about drugs. Right now only lawbreakers get to try it and only our most immoral sociopaths dare to traffic in it. Even the drug wars in Mexico right now are the result of the vacuum created when we took out Pablo Escobar. The situation is similar to the gang wars we saw in Chicago during Prohibition. We have already experienced the worst-case scenario. There is nowhere to go but up. If we legalized drugs, the only people left in jail would be a couple of rapists and some nut who murdered his wife. You’d have a few drunken assaults on the weekend but nobody willing to cut your throat out to stop his heroin withdrawals. The demand for drugs isn’t going anywhere, so let’s stop penalizing everyone who steps in to supply them.
In Mexico, the cops couldn’t care less if you smoke a spliff in public. They have bigger problems to deal with—and so do our police. Conservatives seem to think legalizing drugs equals advocating them. But most Christians see homosexuality as a sin. Very few want to see all the gays thrown in jail. Sin is a part of life and outside of acts of violence, monitoring who does what is between us and God. Isn’t it ironic that the bureaucrat who is telling us what and what isn’t a crime will also throw us in jail if we don’t pay his salary? Kill that guy.
During my formative years, I traveled the world doing lots and lots of drugs. In Columbia, it’s not unusual to see a mom walking around with a small amount of cocaine in her purse. In Costa Rica, an adolescent will snort a bag before he mows a lawn. Americans used treat it like coffee, until it became a prescription drug in 1914. It wasn’t classified as a Schedule II drug until 1970—after which it quickly became the high du jour. Coke is a strong drug that can turn you into a paranoid douche, but I’m not such a mindless robot that I need bureaucrats to keep me away from it. I did blow for years. Lots of people did. If you threw them all in jail, there’d be no entertainment or fashion or high finance or TV industry. Even a lot of the politicians in Washington use cocaine to maintain the long work hours that it takes to wage the war on drugs.
Speed is a very heavy drug that will age you faster than being president (Kennedy did both) and although it’s great to get work done, speed prevents your heart and brain from rebuilding cells because it prevents real sleep. Meth causes an even more extreme version of this decay. However, both are essentially legal in the form of Adderall—which is even called an “amphetamine” on the bottle. These drugs are already perfectly legal and easy to get (all you have to do to get an Adderall scrip is say that you can’t concentrate at work, and that you tried Ritalin but it didn’t work). We have also legalized heroin. It’s called Oxycontin. The fact that these intense uppers and downers have been accepted into our society with little fanfare while potheads are still going to jail defies all logic.
We need to be empirical about this issue and remove emotion from the equation. We shouldn’t legalize chronic because it’s wonderful. It isn’t. We should legalize it because we don’t need the state to tell us what isn’t wonderful.
In the end, few things are harder on our society than this irresponsible war on drugs. We gave drug prohibition a chance. It has turned the innocent into the guilty and it has made the very guilty very rich. Let’s throw in the towel and stop letting the nanny state run our lives. The government is not better at controlling our behavior than we are. It can’t even build a website.
Described as “The Godfather of Hipsterdom,” Canadian expat Gavin McInnes is a writer who cofounded Vice Magazine in 1994. After selling his shares in early 2008, he cofounded the website Street Carnage as well as the advertising agency Rooster New York where he serves as creative director. He is a regular on the Fox News show Red Eye and recently published a book of memoirs with Simon & Schuster, The Death of Cool. Follow @Gavin_McInnes on Twitter.
It’s My Body, I Can Dope If I Want To?
By Matthew Feeney
Perhaps in no other policy area are the opinions of lawmakers as different from the opinions of their constituents as drug policy. Despite the fact that more than half of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana, nowhere near fifty percent of policy makers think the same way. This is unfortunate not only because of the degree of human misery inflicted by current policies related to psychoactive substances, but also because the moral arguments in favor of current drug policy are unconvincing and rely on frightening infringements on natural rights.
One of the most striking aspects of the drug legalization debate in the U.S. is the vocabulary that is commonly used. It is considered normal for people to discuss the “War on Drugs,” despite the fact that these discussions sometimes happen over a beer, a coffee, or amidst a swirl of smoke produced by a nicotine product. Discussions on drug policy also sometimes involve talk of “legalization,” when in fact it should more accurately be described as “re-legalization,” given that all of the now-banned psychoactive substances at the heart of most drug policy discussions have only been made illegal comparatively recently. The effect of this unfortunate and inaccurate use of language has contributed to making currently prohibited substances seem to many people somehow morally worse than drinking alcohol.
Thankfully, the moral foundations of the prohibition of some drugs are weak. Prohibitionist arguments for banning some drugs because of their effects are inconsistent, and it is impossible for someone to consistently claim to care about human suffering or respect of individual rights while arguing for the continued prohibition of some drugs.
Before addressing the moral inconsistencies involved in maintaining a prohibitionist attitude, it is worth outlining the consequences of U.S. drug policy.
Although the U.S. makes up only around 5 percent of the world’s population it houses close to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. puts more of its citizens behind bars than any other country, with more than one percent of the population serving time behind bars. In federal prisons, inmates serving time for a drug offense make up roughly 50 percent of the population.
U.S. drug policy has had a hugely detrimental effect on minorities. According to the Bureau of Justice, black males were six times more like to be imprisoned that white males in 2012. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice, almost 40 percent of prisoners are black, despite the fact that African Americans account for less than 15 percent of the American population. The Sentencing Project estimates that one in three black males born recently can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
The black market, including drug trade, is a fixture of the global economy. Thus, the U.S. drug policy stretches beyond American borders leading to harmful consequences abroad. In the last seven years, more than 70,000 people have been killed in Mexico, thanks in large part to the violence associated to the drug trade. This is much higher than the military and civilian Afghanistan war casualties combined.
Despite the deaths, the mass incarceration, and the financial cost of trying to enforce prohibition the use of illegal drugs in the U.S. has not declined. The so-called “War on Drugs” is a failure.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson points out that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are among our unalienable rights. The English philosopher John Locke said something similar, arguing that people have rights to life, liberty, and property, and that government is obliged to protect these rights. One of the greatest accomplishments of the Founding Fathers was the creation of a state with a political environment that allows for citizens to pursue their own interests, goals, and passions without interference from the state. Under a limited government that protects natural rights the state is limited to ensuring that the rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and property are protected. Unfortunately, it did not take long for successive administrations to gradually grow the size of the state.
What is not often discussed in drug policy debates is that for many people the use of psychoactive substances contributes to their happiness. Many Americans enjoy consuming alcohol, cocaine, LSD, nicotine, and cannabis precisely because these drugs make them feel a desired effect, be that stimulation, relaxation, or a psychedelic state. What is also often overlooked is that drug prohibition rest on a frightening moral assumption: that the state has the right to criminalize what you do with your most intimate piece of property: your body.
Taking and using drugs for the purposes of enjoyment is not new to our species. Almost every culture incorporates mind-altering substances somewhere in their myths, cultural practices, or religions. In fact, some have argued that an entheogenic theory of religion should be considered. In his book Drugged, Northwestern professor of pharmacology Richard J. Miller discusses the Gobekli Tepe archeological site in Turkey. At Gobekli Tepe, there are 17 feet tall limestone megaliths, some of which are decorated with depictions of animals and insects. Interestingly, Gobekli Tepe has been dated to a time called the “Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Period,” meaning that it is older than many ancient sites and predates writing.
However, Gobekli Tepe was not a settlement and seems to have instead been some sort of religious site. Miller considers the possibility that the consumption of hallucinogenic chemicals, which naturally exist in many plants and would have been consumed by our hunter-gather ancestors, inspired religion and the building of sites like Gobekli Tepe. Miller quotes Aldous Huxley, who said, “Pharmacology came before agriculture.”
Not only is the desire to consume mind-altering substances thousands of years old, it is also a natural urge and, as has been outlined by psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel, is not unique to humans.
Despite the prohibitionist rhetoric relating to currently-banned psychoactive substance, the harms and addictive nature of drugs like cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines are exaggerated. Very few people who ever take cocaine or heroin ever become regular users, let alone addicts. In a 2003 article for Reason, my colleague Jacob Sullum quoted a Harvard researcher, who said “it seems possible for young people from a number of different backgrounds, family patterns, and educational abilities to use heroin occasionally without becoming addicted.”
Columbia University neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart has pointed out that methamphetamine, one of the most feared drugs, is “nearly identical” to Adderall and that, “There is no empirical evidence to support the claim that methamphetamine causes one to become physically unattractive.”
Prohibitionists need to address the fact that most users of illegal drugs, like most users of legal drugs like alcohol, are not heavy users or addicts. Like people who consume alcohol, most people who use illegal drugs do not do so to excess and are not a danger to society.
This is an important point to make in the moral discussions surrounding the legalization of currently-banned drugs because it is sometimes said that prohibitionist polices are justified because legal drugs are somehow less dangerous than illegal drugs. This is nonsense. In order for the current drug policy to be defended, prohibitionists must show why it is morally permissible to pursue happiness by using alcohol but not marijuana.
As well as being an infringement on the right to pursue happiness, drug prohibition also infringes on the right of self-ownership. One of the most terrifying features of the “War on Drugs” is not the human suffering that it inflicts around the world (although this should never be overlooked), but the moral assumption it is built on: the state has the right to control what you do to your body. Even if drugs were as addictive and damaging as prohibitionists say, yielding the right of self-ownership to the state would be worth resisting. If one grants the state the right to control your body it is not hard for the state to justify control over other property.
Although no country has legalized all drugs there are examples of countries that have liberalized their drug laws. Portugal, where all drugs have been decriminalized for over ten years, has not descended into chaos, nor have the rates of use of drugs exploded. The Netherlands also has a far more liberal attitude towards drugs, and has also not become a real-life embodiment of Sodom or Gomorrah. Indeed, in the ten years after drug decriminalization began, drug abuse in Portugal was halved.
Current American drug policy is inhumane, expensive, unworkable, scientifically illiterate, racist, an excuse to grow government, and a violation of our rights. The obvious practical failures of the “War on Drugs” are well known. But it is not often enough said that current drug policy is not only a practical failure, it is a moral one too, and it is almost unspeakably depressing to consider how many lives will be needlessly ruined before enough legislators realize this for America’s drug policy to be abandoned.
Matthew Feeney is assistant editor of Reason 24/7.
End the Drug War: The American People are Not the Enemy
By Doug Bandow
Drug use is bad. Arresting people for using drugs is worse. With the states of Colorado and Washington leading the way, the federal government should drop criminal penalties against those who produce, sell, and consume drugs.
Prohibition always was a dubious policy for a people who called their country the land of the free. Early restrictions on tobacco and alcohol use failed. The so-called Drug War has been no better. Unfortunately, the latter campaign has always been a violent, often deadly, assault on the American people.
There’s no obvious moral reason to demonize the use of mind-altering substances which are widely employed around the globe. Obviously, drugs can be abused, but so can most anything else. That some people will misuse something is no argument for prohibition. Even the Bible only inveighs against alcohol intoxication, not use. In his short book, The War on Drugs is a War on Freedom, Christian writer Laurence Vance makes a powerful case against the Drug War.
Some people still may abhor drug use as a matter of personal moral principle, but the criminal law should focus on interpersonal morality, that is, behavior which directly affects others. Basing criminal strictures on intra-personal morality essentially puts government into the business of soul-molding, a task for which it has demonstrated little aptitude. And if morality is one’s concern, it would be foolish to let politicians make such moral distinctions as celebrating use of alcohol while punishing use of marijuana.
Moreover, whatever one’s morals, the Drug War has failed. As Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman observed, “we need not resolve the ethical issue to agree on policy. Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse for both the addict and the rest of us.”
Drug prohibition has failed in almost every way, leaving extremely high use while yielding all of the counterproductive impacts of criminalization. Our decades-long commitment to legal restrictions has the following real-world impacts. It
- raises drug prices,
- generates enormous profits for criminal entrepreneurs,
- forces even casual consumers into an illegal and often violent market,
- causes heavy users to commit crimes to pay for higher-priced drugs,
- leaves violence as the ultimate arbiter in disputes among users and dealers,
- wastes vast amounts on enforcement efforts,
- corrupts officials and entire institutions, and
- undermines individual liberties.
All this, and drugs remain widely used. If a policy with those outcomes is not a “failure,” what would be?
The direct enforcement costs run more than $40 billion a year and affect every level of government. Forgone tax revenue is even greater. With Uncle Sam effectively bankrupt and many states carrying obligations akin to those of Greece, the Drug War is a wasteful diversion from far more pressing needs.
Attempting to suppress an enduring and profitable trade also has corrupted virtually every institution it has touched—police, prosecution, judiciary, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and even the military. The problem is even worse in other nations, such as Mexico.
Perhaps the most perverse impact of the Drug War has been to injure and kill users. Far from protecting people from themselves, prohibition actually makes drug use more dangerous. For instance, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman chose to use heroin, but he could never be certain as to its quality, purity, and potency. And he had no way to hold his suppliers accountable for negligently or fraudulently endangering his life. Criminalization also encourages dealers to traffic in substances which are both more concealable and valuable—which usually means more concentrated, and dangerous.
Threatening addicts with jail also makes them less likely to acknowledge their problems and seek assistance. The drug war encourages needle-sharing by IV drug users, which promotes the spread of AIDS and hepatitis. Fear of prosecution causes doctors to under-prescribe painkillers for the sick, while Washington fights to keep marijuana off-limits to the ill, despite evidence that it helps some people suffering from a variety of ailments.
Nor is there any way to run a war against tens of millions of Americans without sacrificing the constitutional liberties of all of us. The drug trade is a classic “self-victim” crime without a complaining witness. Thus, government must rely on intrusive and draconian enforcement procedures: informants, surveillance, wiretaps, and raids. Innocent people are injured and sometimes killed during the increasingly militarized raids.
Normal constitutional rules don’t apply. Lawyers talk of the “drug exception” to the Fourth Amendment. Cops admit to lying to justify arrests. Prosecutors acknowledge relying on dubious testimony to win convictions. Judges apply mandatory minimum penalties for even minimal offenses.
The crusade against drug use has turned the supposed land of the free into a prison state. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of people under criminal justice control in one form or another tripled to six million. Of nearly 14 million arrests in 2009, 1.7 million were for drug crimes, almost three times the number arrested for violent offenses. Nearly half of drug arrests were for marijuana. Drug offenders account for more than half of federal convicts. Roughly one fifth of state prisoners are in for drug crimes.
Ironically, the Drug War has created new and more dangerous crimes. The drug laws more than drug use are “crimogenic.” For instance, unlike alcohol—which makes one more likely both to commit and be victim of a crime—heroin and marijuana promote passivity. Moreover, by inflating the price of drugs, the Drug War goads addicts to steal.
The worst crimes grow out of a well-funded illegal marketplace. As during Prohibition, violence becomes the ultimate business guarantee. Moreover, abundant drug revenues subsidize gangs and organizations which branch out into other crimes, from kidnapping to terrorism.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy concluded: “increased arrests and law enforcement pressures on drug markets were strongly associated with increased homicide rates and other violent crimes.” Even the late James Q. Wilson, who supported drug prohibition, admitted, “It is not clear that enforcing the laws against drug use would reduce crime. On the contrary, crime may be caused by such enforcement.” In nations such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, drug trafficking organizations engage in open warfare, often with their respective governments.
One still could imagine attempting to justify the Drug War if it worked, in the sense of eliminating drug use. However, drug prohibition has accomplished little in this regard, having the most impact where it is least needed. Observed Mary M. Cleveland: “Most people choose not to use illicit drugs even when they have cheap and easy access to them. Enforcement can have some effect on light users; regular and problem users will get their drugs even in prison. Drug treatment and changes in social norms have far more influence on drug use than enforcement because they affect individuals’ attitudes.”
Government figures indicate that nearly half of Americans older than 12 have tried illegal drugs. Tens of millions of people use with some regularity. High school students report that drugs are easily accessible. Drug use persists even in countries where governments execute dealers.
Ironically, there is no correlation between increased enforcement and decreased consumption. The Economist magazine observed: “There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer.”
Frustration with the Drug War obviously was manifested in the decision by voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize recreational marijuana use. Uruguay has done the same, with pressure rising in other Latin American nations to shift away from prohibition. Former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico are urging a “Drug Peace.”
America’s states could experiment. Drugs could be sold with varying restrictions (such as we impose on alcohol and tobacco). The specific treatment of individual substances could be based on assessments of harm and the possible impact on others.
Greatest law enforcement efforts should remain directed at kids. That actually would be easier in a semi-legal gray rather than illegal black market.
Legalization would not be a scary jump into the unknown. Portugal decriminalized all drugs a decade ago. Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have permitted some legal drug use. Cocaine, heroin, and marijuana once were legal in the U.S., but America did not turn into a nation of addicts. A dozen American states previously decriminalized marijuana use and many more have legalized the use of medical marijuana. While these policies have not been problem-free, none have seen challenges approaching those caused by criminal prohibition.
Indeed, the upside potential of legalization is enormous. Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter wrote in Drug War Heresies, “Reductions in criminal sanctioning have little or no effect on the prevalence of drug use (i.e., the number of users).” Even if “relaxed drug laws increase the prevalence of use . . . , the additional users will, on average, use less heavily and less harmfully than those who would have also used drugs under prohibition.”
People should not abuse drugs. It might be best if they didn’t use them at all. However, that is no justification for a war against drug users, arresting many and endangering all. Indeed, we all pay the price from increased crime and decreased liberties.
American governments at all levels should terminate the Drug War. It is time to stop treating the American people as the enemy.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and DC bars.
Brian Miller responds to Doug Bandow in his Student Voices column.
What’s Wrong with Drugs? A Symposium
Introduction by Christopher Fisher
Advancement in medical science has perhaps been the most beneficial fruit of modernity. Once deadly diseases are now extinct; besides the occasional viral outbreak, plagues (like the Black Death) are a thing of the past. Yet modernity struggles with another form of disease, one paradoxically appropriate for the age of the liberated, sovereign self: self-inflicted drug addition.*
The social cost of drugs is widely acknowledged. Yet how societies respond to drug use—in both their moral judgments and political actions—are diverse. In 2013, Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana use in violation of federal law. More than any time in American history, we are confronted with the question of how our government responds to drug use. To understand how governments should act, we need to ask pointed questions about human nature and the history of drug law. Questions like: Is there a moral justification for drug use? What success has legalization had in curbing drug use in other countries? How do we measure success or failure in drug policy? Does the State serve a role in limiting the potential for self-inflicted harm for the benefit of society? How do drugs impede—or possibly enhance—the proper end of man? and many more. In this symposium, we bring together figures representing the nuances of this debate. Gavin McInnes weighs in with a first-person account on the harms of drugs, with a call for legalization; Doug Bandow analyzes what he sees as the failed legacy of the drug war; Matthew Feeney makes a moral case for drug use based on self-ownership; and Anthony Esolen questions all with his moral claims on man’s true ends and the ultimate purpose of government.
*Thousands, perhaps millions of people suffer from forced drug use, from child soldiers in Africa to sex slaves in America. They did not choose their fate, and will not be the topic of this symposium.