Winning a Battle, Losing the War

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Marijuana decriminalization is coming. It will happen within the next twenty years, if not the next ten to fifteen. When it does happen some libertarians will hail it as the Waterloo of the drug war. Everything else will just be mopping up. They’ll be wrong — in fact, marijuana decriminalization is just as likely to prolong the larger war on drugs.

The case against marijuana is pathetically weak. The drug is not addictive and not notably detrimental to the user’s health. Nor does it cause the user to become a menace to society. It is already commonly available and widely used. Its prohibition is a sham.

But opponents of the drug war often are not honest, at least not in public, about what will happen once marijuana is legal. Use of the drug will increase as its cost — both the dollar price and the risk involved in obtaining it — plummets. More use will lead to more abuse, and there will be stories of lives ruined by cannabis in one way or another. Such stories will fuel the claims of the drug warriors that their war does have a deterrent effect, however minor, and that drugs, even those as innocuous as marijuana, are dangerous. If society deteriorates under the influence of marijuana, they will argue, imagine how much worse it would be if cocaine and heroin were legal, or for that matter LSD and PCP.

Nor, it should be pointed out right now, is it true that availability of u201Csoftu201D drugs will obviate demand for these u201Chardu201D drugs. The availability of alcohol does not eliminate the demand for marijuana, no more than the availability of hamburgers removes the demand for pizza. Given that hard drugs produce different and in some cases more greatly desired effects from soft drugs, demand for them will not slacken. At the same time the drug warriors will have all the more resources at their disposal to go after other drugs if they no longer have to worry about marijuana. This will be an especially dangerous development if applied to the kinds of military ventures that are currently undertaken against Columbia, for example, in the name of fighting cocaine.

One more negative development likely to follow the decriminalization of marijuana: child use of marijuana — which will surely be illegal at some level — will also increase, and the rationale of saving the children will be used to justify the ongoing prohibition of other drugs.

The decriminalization of marijuana is likely to strengthen the case for prohibition of other drugs for all of the reasons above. It is also likely to prolong the drug war in another way: by compromising the opposition. Right now the lobby to decriminalize cannabis is very well organized, from NORML to the High Times. But much of it is primarily or exclusively interested in marijuana. There’s no guarantee that marijuana users will want to legalize other drugs any more than alcoholics want to legalize marijuana now. If the marijuana lobby makes a separate peace, the war on other drugs will continue, and with that much less opposition.

Keep in mind what the war on drugs is really all about. It’s not about drugs. It’s about saving us from ourselves, from our own tastes and prejudices, just like every other function of the therapeutic state. And if the state and its allies are willing to use Ritalin and other drugs to further their goals now, there is no reason why they could not use other drugs that are now illegal. There are other pretexts by which the state can justify searching our persons and seizing our possessions on airlines and in our own vehicles or homes.

Even if all drugs were decriminalized, the state would try to find some reason to do it, and we should not take it for granted that another pretext would be any less effective for the state than the drug war has been. Already we have seen a war on tobacco and a war on guns that are every bit as controlling as the war on drugs, but much more subtle. Indeed you can probably snort a line of cocaine in the bathroom of an aircraft, restaurant or business more easily than you can smoke a cigarette there.

The drug war has already in large part served its purpose: it has expanded the scope and authority of the state, just like the Cold War, the war on poverty, the World Wars and every other war. If there is one thing at which the State as an institution excels, it is in starting wars. Ending the drug war will ultimately be a prelude to the next one.

None of this is to say that marijuana and other drugs should not be legalized. From my perspective that is strictly a constitutional matter — if an amendment was required to outlaw alcohol, it should take nothing less than an amendment to outlaw other intoxicants. On the flipside there is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits states and localities, as well as households and private businesses, from determining their own drug policies.

That’s federalism, and under such a system those who really want to ban drugs might still be able to do it locally, if not on a national level. But why should anyone in Missouri care what drugs they’re doing up in Minnesota? Short of secession, federalism is the best way to give everyone what they want. Of course given how centralized power in this country has already become, secession may well be more feasible than a return to federalism.

There’s the rub. Not only is the battle over marijuana just one front of the war on drugs, but the entire war itself is just one manifestation of the State’s self-appointed mission to save us all. If you want to see the shape of things to come, consider this quote by Gary Johnson, governor of New Mexico and a hero to some anti-Drug War folks because of his steps toward marijuana legalization in his state:

u201CMake drugs a controlled substance like alcohol. Legalize it, control it, regulate it, tax it. If you legalize it, we might actually have a healthier society.u201D

u201CControl it, regulate it, tax it.u201D But drugs don’t pay taxes. Maybe Gov. Johnson wasn’t thinking about controlled substances, he was thinking about controlled people. If winning the battle over marijuana means making a hero of politicians like Gov. Johnson, it’s going to be a very Pyrrhic victory indeed.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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