You are here

Land of the Free? Our Insane and Unjust Drug War

Americans have long beat their chests and bragged about their liberties. But more and more these are empty boasts -- the land of the free is really the land of the regulated; the home of the brave now the home of the bureaucracy.

Take our insane "war on drugs," an affront not only to common sense and fiscal sanity, but also to basic civil liberty. As is often the case, government has gained control of our bodies by regulating the market, i.e., dictating what you can or can't buy, sell, or own, in this case, narcotics.

By what right does the government lay claim to this power? Often it is said -- erroneously -- that drug prohibition laws as are "society's" way of sending a message -- the message that drugs are immoral and/or physically dangerous to consume.

Nonsense. First, there is no such thing as a collectively moving "society." There are only individuals who individually make countless decisions every day about how to conduct their own lives. Since every single day many millions of these individuals choose to intoxicate themselves with some substance or other, in spite of our vast prohibition infrastructure, if "society" is sending a message with its drug laws, then individuals don't seem to be getting that message.

Of course, even if it was getting through, the logic of the message is downright abysmal. Wouldn't  everything "immoral" or "dangerous"  be ripe for prohibition, then? As William F. Buckley famously observed, adultery is immoral, but the state doesn't go around locking up people who cheat on their spouses. Eating a rib-eye steak is (allegedly) bad for you, but that doesn't mean we close down Morton's, The Palm, or any other red meat pusher (although maybe we shouldn't be giving Mayor Bloomberg an ideas).

These decisions -- whether to remain faithful or eat healthy -- are mostly and rightfully considered the province of personal, not collective responsibility. But "drugs are different," you say? To paraphrase Yoda: No. No different. Only different in your mind....

The arguments for drug legalization are many and varied, but can be concisely summed up in five easy pieces:

  1. Drug laws criminalize ordinary citizens who are either harmlessly inebriating themselves for recreation or are truly addicted and in need of help, not prison. What kind of state makes criminals of its own people in this way? Not a just one, that's for sure.
  2. It's costing us a fortune. A 2010 Cato Institute study titled "The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition" concluded that legalizing drugs would save us $41.3 billion per year in enforcement costs. "Of these savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government." That may sound like a drop in the bucket for a nations in hock by trillions, but for a lot of cities and states running billion-dollar deficits, those savings would add up quick. That is money we need, and need desperately.
  3. Drug prohibition empowers organized crime to such an extent that they are able to gain effective control of entire cities -- and countries. America's experiment with alcohol prohibition gave the Mafia more power than had it ever had, making Chicago a virtual fiefdom of Al Capone. The same thing is happening today -- the narco-war currently razing the communities on both sides of the U.S/Mexican border are a direct result of our drug laws. In fact, the most ardent opponents of drug legalization are the pushers and suppliers who make millions off the inflated price of an "illegal" product.
  4. Prohibition laws make drugs more, not less dangerous, and make addiction more, not less, likely. With legal medicines and foods, one can be reasonably certain that the ingredients are as advertised. Not so with illegal drugs. With no regulations and no free market incentives to provide reliably safe product, dealers routinely cut their substances to deadly levels of purity or else lace them with other substances to save money on distribution. That is why street drugs often lead to accidental overdose or poisoning.
  5. Prohibition is -- in practice -- absolutely futile. Human beings have been ingesting mind-altering substances since before recorded history to ease the pains and pangs of daily existence. And they will always do so. Those who think that a couple of beers or a couple of cigarettes after work, or even a morning Starbucks, is any different than someone else lighting up a joint are thoroughly kidding themselves. The impulse is in fact exactly the same -- altering brain chemistry to make the day more enjoyable or bearable.

Most frustrating about the drug debate is that it is often from conservatives that you hear the loudest yelps for prohibition. The same people who oppose Obamacare (and rightly so) because it is a monstrous violation of personal liberty fail to realize that the precedent that the government can control your body had already been set -- by drug laws. Once the state tells you what you can't buy or use (drugs) it is halfway to telling you what you must buy and use (health insurance). And the rationale is exactly the same in both instances -- it's for your own good.

These conservative moralizers (I'm looking at you, Bill O'Reilly) often throw out a red herring, claiming that any argument for legalization is somehow an endorsement of drugs themselves. This is outrageous. Skydiving is dangerous, but legal -- does that mean the state is encouraging everyone to jump out of a plane? Or how about cheerleading -- it's one of the most dangerous sports around, landing over 30,000 in the  emergency room in 2008 alone. But it's legal -- does that mean Uncle Sam wants us all to pick up pompoms? Of course not. It just means that those who are so inclined may accept the risk if they want to. You know, like free, autonomous beings. Make no mistake -- moralizers who argue that drugs should be illegal are really saying that they don't want people to have too much freedom.

To sum up: Drug prohibition laws make us less prosperous, less safe, and less free. It's (forgive me) high time that liberty-loving Americans  put their money where their mouths are.