This article is the first installment in the symposium “What’s Wrong With Drugs?” Matthew Feeney weighed in with a discussion of self-ownership and drug use. Gavin McInnes argues that drugs are bad, but should be legal. Christopher Fisher introduced the symposium here. Look for Anthony Esolen's contribution on Wednesday, March 12.
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.
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.
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.