You know the routine: Suggest that the War on Poverty should be ended because it has utterly failed to achieve its objectives while being extremely costly and infringing on our freedom, and the nearest liberal will accuse you of being a shortsighted ideologue who hates the poor and wants to see their lives destroyed.
Now suggest that the War on Drugs should be ended because it has utterly failed to achieve its objectives while being extremely costly and infringing on our freedom, and the nearest conservative, in this case one John Hawkins, will accuse you of succumbing to "misguided thinking that comes from trying to apply unworkable theoretical concepts in the real world." In other words, stop whining about high taxes and constitutional violations! Don’t you know there’s a war going on? We must all be prepared to make some sacrifices in order to achieve victory. In short, we must destroy the village in order to save it, in the infamous phrase from another costly, failed war.
Actually, in this Human Events column Hawkins barely even touches on the issues of the costs of the drug war, whether monetary or constitutional. Never does he go into detail on the billions upon billions that the "war" has cost, and is costing, Americans, beginning with the $12.7 billion budget for the White House Office of Drug Control Policy and continuing through all the state and local government expenditures, plus the cost of trying and incarcerating all those victims of the war, not to mention the lost productivity from the many nonviolent offenders, a sizable percentage of whom were productive members of society who happened to partake of a substance that some holier-than-thou politicians and bureaucrats decided were forbidden. (Meanwhile, alcohol and many other psychoactive substances known as prescription drugs remain perfectly legal and are even, in the case of prescription drugs, subsidized by the government.) Nowhere does Hawkins discuss the troubling constitutional and legal issues of asset forfeiture, no-knock raids, paid informants, militarized and corrupted law enforcement, and so on. To him all of these concerns are merely "unworkable theoretical concepts" that have no place "in the real world."
After the first, brief paragraph in which Hawkins dismisses any and all gripes about high taxes and lost liberties, he then launches into a paragraph that contains a partial truth:
For example, you often hear advocates of drug legalization say that we’re never going to win the war on drugs and that it would free up space in our prisons if we simply legalized drugs. While it’s true that we may not ever win the war against drugs — i.e. never entirely eradicate the use of illegal drugs — we’re not ever going to win the war against murder, robbery and rape either. But our moral code rejects each of them, so none — including drugs — can be legalized if we still adhere to that code.
Hawkins is correct that we would not suggest giving up the fight against crimes such as "murder, robbery and rape" simply because they will always be with us, no matter how tough the laws, the police, and the courts. He is incorrect, however, when he implies that anything "our moral code rejects" must be criminalized. There are dozens of vices that, while offensive to "our moral code," are nevertheless permitted by the criminal code. Cheating at Monopoly may be morally wrong, but Joe Friday isn’t going to come knocking on my door if I engage in it.
The question to be asked when deciding whether something should be criminalized is "Does this action infringe upon someone else’s rights to life, liberty, and property?" If the answer is no — and if the question is asked about drug production, possession, sale, or use, it is — then the correct response is not to criminalize the activity, or, if it is already criminalized, to decriminalize it. Otherwise the law becomes a bludgeon with which the powerful attempt to control every aspect of the lives of the powerless.
Hawkins then elides from the mention of libertarians in his first paragraph to attacking a rather non-libertarian argument, which is that the drug war should be ended so that the government can tax and regulate drugs. This is a popular line of reasoning among the National Review coterie, and Hawkins attacks it fairly effectively, pointing out that one reason the government won’t prohibit alcohol and tobacco outright, despite the fact that alcohol was once prohibited, is that it makes too much money from their sale. (His implication that tobacco ought to be banned because its users are cutting their lives short by 14 years is far less convincing and even a bit ominous, cluing us in to just what kind of "conservative" Hawkins really is.) Thus, even if it were later decided that decriminalizing heroin, for example, had very bad results, it would be difficult to get the government to make it illegal again because of the revenue that taxes on heroin would be generating.
From a libertarian perspective, the fact that a previously criminalized non-crime would be made harder to re-criminalize is all to the good. However, I can’t imagine very many libertarians who would argue in favor of exchanging one form of government control over the drug market for another. Certainly, ensuring the government a steady influx of cash via taxes on formerly illegal drugs is not much of an improvement; it’s just that much more money they can use to try to control our behavior in other ways. Still, if I had to choose between the current War on Drugs and a tax-and-regulate drug control scheme, I’d definitely choose the latter.
The next line of defense from Hawkins is to argue that since alcohol prohibition drove down alcohol consumption and its attendant ills, drug prohibition does the same thing with regard to illegal substances. Of course, what Hawkins fails to mention in his depiction of a booze-free Roaring Twenties is that (a) the statistics do not necessarily bear out his contention (which is actually a quote from Ann Coulter) and (b) even if alcohol consumption was indeed reduced, crime, and especially violent crime, rose dramatically. One need only refer to the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, in which seven people were killed in a shootout between the Al Capone and Bugs Moran gangs, for a case in point. Absent the incentives of a black market, there would have been no cause for either gang to form in the first place or to shoot it out for control of the Chicago liquor market. When was the last time, for example, you saw Anheuser-Busch sending thugs to knock off Coors employees?
Given Hawkins’s premise that drug prohibition is currently inhibiting drug consumption, it then follows that, as Hawkins says, "there would almost have to be an enormous spike in usage" if drugs were decriminalized. Hawkins backs this up with exactly one statistic: the rate of cannabis use in the Netherlands rose from 15 percent to 44 percent among 18-to-20-year-olds when the Dutch legalized marijuana. If that one number doesn’t convince all of you drug war naysayers, nothing will.
In rebuttal, consider that probably a significant portion of that increase came simply from people’s newfound willingness to admit that they were smoking dope once it became legal. Then consider that there was likely a spike in use owing to the new and exciting opportunity to get stoned with impunity. Furthermore, consider some other hard statistics which Hawkins fails to mention. As of 2001, 25 years after the Netherlands decriminalized marijuana:
- The lifetime prevalence of marijuana use among people 12 years of age and older was 17.0 percent in the Netherlands versus 36.9 percent in the United States.
- The lifetime prevalence of heroin use among the same age group was 0.4 percent in the Netherlands and 1.4 percent in the U.S. (So much for the "gateway drug" theory!)
- The homicide rate per 100,000 people (average from 1999 to 2001) was 1.51 in the Netherlands as compared to 5.56 in the U.S.
These statistics, of course, are not proof that drug use (or the murder rate) would not rise if drugs were decriminalized in the U.S., but they’re a bit more compelling than Hawkins’s single statistic which tells us little about drug use in the Netherlands overall.
The conservative Hawkins, who probably considers himself an opponent of socialism, next launches into nanny-state reasons why we can’t simply make illegal drugs legal. If this were "a purely capitalistic society," Hawkins writes, then maybe the case that drug use only harms the user would be plausible (though one suspects Hawkins would remain unconvinced). Given that it’s a welfare state, however, it’s entirely implausible because we will all have to bear the burden of the unemployment, welfare, and hospital bills of all of those new addicts that legalization will create. "Even setting that aside," he continues, "we make laws that prevent people from harming themselves all the time in our society," citing helmet laws, seatbelt laws, anti-prostitution laws, and anti-suicide laws as examples.
Herein lies the problem for conservatives today: Unwilling to reexamine the nanny state and call for its severe reduction or abolition, they end up employing the same arguments for curtailing people’s freedom to consume substances they don’t like (in this instance, certain drugs) as liberals do for curtailing people’s freedom to consume substance that liberals don’t like (such as tobacco or Crisco). The solution to the problems created by the nanny state is not to curtail more and more freedoms so that others don’t have to bear the burden of some people’s bad choices but to abolish the nanny state so that each person is responsible for bearing the burden of his own bad choices.
In the end Hawkins seems to boil all his arguments down to this: "And make no mistake about it, drugs do wreck a lot of lives." Even though he follows that up with an admission that "drugs aren’t the only things that wreck lives and not every person who does drugs ends up" a wreck, drugs seem to occupy a special place in Hell as Hawkins imagines it. We may not be able to legislate away all the other bad things that people can do to themselves (albeit not for lack of trying), but the government can at least force them not to inhale, inject, or ingest substances that Hawkins and his ilk know have the potential to harm them. Anyone who complains about the waste or misuse of taxpayer dollars, the crime that prohibition induces, and the loss of God-given freedoms is obviously a crackpot — or is that crackhead? — who is "trying to apply unworkable theoretical concepts in the real world" and needs to stop being so selfish and sacrifice some of his liberty for the greater good.
If Hawkins really believes this, it makes you wonder what he’s smoking.
Michael Tennant [send him mail] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.