Sunday, August 31, 2008

1999 Social policy archives: War on Drugs

It's Time to End the War on Drugs

Hardly a week goes by without some mention in the media of the war on drugs. Record drug busts, money-laundering schemes, increasing drug abuse, gang warfare, thefts and robberies, political corruption, infringements on bank privacy, searches and seizures, confiscation of assets, arrests, convictions, and incarcerations.
If the overall situation - both with drug usage and the drug war - keeps getting worse, shouldn't Americans be asking some fundamental questions: How long is all of this going to continue? How bad do things have to get before people finally recognize that the war on drugs has failed? How many infringements on individual liberty and privacy must still be tolerated?
The policy question is: If the war on drugs has admittedly failed to achieve its objectives after decades of warfare, and if the situation has continued to worsen over the years, then why shouldn't this government program simply be terminated?
Of course, the basic moral question is: Why shouldn't an individual be free to engage in self-destructive behavior? Isn't that the very essence of human freedom? If a person is not free to do bad harmful things to himself, then how can he truly be considered free? Under what moral authority does the state regulate and punish an adult for doing something bad to himself?
The true test of a free society is not whether people are free to engage in what the state defines as "responsible" conduct. After all, even the Chinese and North Korean people are "free" by that standard. The real test of a free society is whether an individual is free to engage in irresponsible behavior, so long as it does not interfere, in a direct and forceful way, with the ability of others to do the same. In other words, as long as a person doesn't murder, rape, steal, burglarize, defraud, and the like, freedom entails the right to do anything a person wants, even if it's the most irresponsible and self-destructive thing in the world.
There are also pragmatic reasons for ending the drug war. For one thing, even if it were capable of succeeding, the price in terms of liberty and privacy would be high. After all, they can't even keep drugs out of prisons. How would they finally keep them out of people's homes - with government cameras and drug-sniffing dogs and children who are taught to rat on their parents?
Moreover, when a person desires or needs some drug, making possession or distribution of the drug illegal is unlikely to achieve its intended result. Since making drugs illegal restricts supply, the price is artificially forced upward. Drug users are usually going to do whatever is necessary to get the money to pay for their drug. Thus, it is not a coincidence that burglaries, robberies, muggings, and thefts increase when drugs are made illegal. When was the last time you saw a wino stealing money to pay for wine?
The most effective way to treat drug addiction is through therapy, not incarceration. That's why Alcoholics Anonymous has been so effective in treating alcohol abuse. But therapy entails an addict's freely talking about his addiction and the underlying reasons for his addiction. By making drug use illegal, the drug war has the opposite effect - it makes it much more difficult for people to come forward and openly seek treatment.
Ironically, ending the war on drugs would be more likely to achieve the type of society in which most of us would like to live: a peaceful, harmonious, law-abiding one. Does that mean that people wouldn't take drugs? Of course not. But it would mean that prices would drop and that drug users would have less incentive to steal or rob to get the money to pay for the drugs. It would also enable addicts to talk freely about their addictions, openly admit they have a problem, and seek treatment.
Most important, ending the war on drugs would move us in the direction of replacing the paternalistic state, with its massive infringements on liberty and privacy, with a government whose powers are limited to protecting the right of the individual to live his life as he chooses so long as he respects the right of everyone else to do the same. Isn't this the principle on which our nation was founded?

Mr. Hornberger is president of The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va.

We can actually reduce the use of dangerous and (now) illegal drugs, while freeing up the resources currently being wasted in law enforcement to either lower crime elsewhere, improve our schools, or give the citizens a tax cut.

Craig Farmer
making the word "liberal" safe again!

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