The following is based on a talk given at the Free State Project‘s Liberty Forum in Nashua, New Hampshire, on Friday, March 6, 2009.
After 9/11, a lot of people hoped that the government would focus itself on terrorism and treat the drug war as a lower priority. Perhaps the preoccupation with war on foreign enemies of the United States would cast some perspective of the U.S. war here at home. This hope was seen in drug reformers and elements of the left and right alike.
Some libertarians, who considered terrorism a valid reason for government to flex its muscles, advocated this shift in government resources and attention. In October 2001, writing for the Cato Institute, Executive Vice President David Boaz urged policymakers to
Reorient drug war resources to the war on terrorism. Some officials have compared the new war on terrorism with the war on drugs. That’s a depressing thought: We’ve been fighting the drug war for 87 years, and drug use is as high as ever. A better tack is to take some of the $40 billion we spend annually on the futile drug war and reallocate it to the war on terrorism. Use the Drug Enforcement Administration’s agents to search for pipe bombs, not marijuana pipes.
This was an appealing idea, even for those of us who had early objections to the war on terrorism. Even if government power might be misused in the name of defending America, at least perhaps the war on drugs would be calmed down. Maybe some politicians would even recognize that the drug war was enriching terrorists at the expense of American security.
Instead, we saw the two policies intertwined by the Bush administration. On February 3, 2002, government ads were featured during the Super Bowl that blamed drug users for financing terrorism, specifically targeting marijuana use for helping bolster the Taliban.
Of course, this propaganda had the facts totally backwards. The Taliban was not getting rich off American marijuana use and it was in fact drug prohibition that helped drive up opium profits. And, by the way, the Taliban is still living it up now, almost eight years later, feeding off the proceeds from the international drug policies pushed by the U.S. government.
Also in the aftermath of 9/11 many defenders of the Bush anti-terror policies, particularly the Patriot Act, resorted to a very unsettling argument. They said that Bush was only seeking law-enforcement powers that the government had long been using against drug dealers. Surely, terrorists are if anything even worse than dealers, and so powergrab that was good enough for the drug war must be good enough for the war on terror.
The problem with the logic was that the war on drugs had already been an intolerable excuse for government erosion of our civil liberties. The powers enjoyed by prosecutors and police in the drug war went way too far, no matter what the excuse.
The war on terrorism has brought with it warrantless surveillance, lawless searches and seizures, a growth in bureaucracy, a militarization of domestic policing, and serious attacks on the due process rights of criminal suspects. Most of this has been tolerated by the American people, who were conditioned by decades of invasions into their privacy and lives in the name of the drug war, and so were willing to give up more freedom for another supposedly good reason. If there had never been a drug war, it would have been much harder to get the Patriot Act and all that followed it.
Again, drug reformers are expressing hope, perhaps more than at any time since the successes of medical marijuana activists in the 1990s. The reason now is the ascent of Barack Obama, who is interpreted as less a drug warrior than Bush. Last month, Obama’s administration made encouraging gestures when White House spokesman Nick Schapiro said, "The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws." Just last week, Attorney General Eric Holder indicated the administration would stop the raids on state medical marijuana dispensaries.
To the extent fewer people are persecuted, deprived of their medicine, thrown in prison and brutalized by the system because of this, we must cheer loudly. It is a triumph of liberty for many Americans. Yet I am concerned that, as in other areas, Obama’s reforms will silence the dissent of civil libertarians, and I also fear the drug war has not taken the beating some people think.
Surely, no one is saying Obama believes in drug freedom and the abolition of all drug laws, so I will not argue against that strawman. However, given the very limited degree of his opposition to U.S. drug policy — given his failure to understand the fundamental principles at stake — indeed, given the failure of even many drug reformers to fully grasp the severity of the drug issue — I am not at all optimistic that we will be any freer a country, concerning this issue as a whole, in four years than we are today.
I have long heard activists express concern that we not be too radical on this issue. Drug reformers warn that making the perfect the enemy of the good will get us nowhere. Conservatives say they can sign on to the whole freedom agenda, except too many of us are attached to legalization. Even many libertarians caution against emphasizing the issue. Some Libertarian candidates downplay it or outright equivocate on the drug issue, for fear of alienating the electorate.
Well, I must say I disagree strongly with all of this. I believe the war on drugs is, if anything, discussed far too little, and that there is no good reason to shy from it. The damage it has done and will continue to do to the very fabric of our society is almost impossible to exaggerate. Without ending prohibition and restoring the rights it has diminished, we can never reclaim our civilization.
Permit me to read an excerpt from Ludwig von Mises, master Austrian economist and one of the greatest classical liberal thinkers of all time. Mises, who many conservatives claim to admire, did not seem to think this was a minor matter. This is from Mises’s economic masterpiece, Human Action, written sixty years ago in 1949:
The problems involved in direct government interference with consumption. . . concern the fundamental issues of human life and social organization. If it is true that government derives its authority from God and is entrusted by Providence to act as the guardian of the ignorant and stupid populace, then it is certainly its task to regiment every aspect of the subject’s conduct. The God-sent ruler knows better what is good for his wards than they do themselves. It is his duty to guard them against the harm they would inflict upon themselves if left alone.
Self-styled “realistic” people fail to recognize the immense importance of the principles implied. They contend that they do not want to deal with the matter from what, they say, is a philosophic and academic point of view. Their approach is, they argue, exclusively guided by practical considerations. . . .
However, the case is not so simple as that. Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. A good case could be made out in favor of the prohibition of alcohol and nicotine. And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.
These fears are not merely imaginary specters terrifying secluded doctrinaires. It is a fact that no paternal government, whether ancient or modern, ever shrank from regimenting its subjects’ minds, beliefs, and opinions. If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away. The nave advocates of government interference with consumption delude themselves when they neglect what they disdainfully call the philosophical aspect of the problem. They unwittingly support the case of censorship, inquisition, religious intolerance, and the persecution of dissenters.
Radicalism on the drug issue is often seen in terms of the politics of the 1960s and since, but twenty years before Woodstock, one of the most serious and significant thinkers ever to ponder the importance of human liberty said all this, going far beyond what most critics of drug policy would say today.
But is Mises correct? Does he overstate his case? Is the abolition of the right to consume whatever someone wants really taking all his freedom away? And does drug prohibition really send us on the path to censorship and religious persecution?
In America, our liberties our ostensibly protected by the U.S. Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights. How much has the drug war compromised our Constitutional rights? Let us consider a countdown, starting with the Tenth Amendment and moving to First.
Drug War Casualty: The Bill of Rights and Constitutional Liberty
The Tenth Amendment says "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This effectively means that if the Constitution does not grant the power to the federal government over something, then it is for the states and people to decide. Some people here would say this is the most important amendment. If the federal government obeyed it, the entire drug war as we know it would be impossible.
In 1909, Hamilton Wright, U.S. official to the Shanghai Opium Commission, complained that the Constitution was "constantly getting in the way" of his drug war ambitions. Indeed, in domestic politics, there is no Constitutional authorization for a federal drug war whatever. Without a grant of power, the U.S. government is supposed to butt out.
In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed the Harrison Narcotic Act into law. There was no constitutional basis for this, but at least by the time alcohol prohibition came around, it was recognized that the federal government would need constitutional authority to ban liquor. They passed the 18th Amendment and repealed the disaster of alcohol prohibition with the 21st amendment.
By 1937, however, there was no more such deference to Constitutional procedure. That year, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Marijuana Tax Act into law, effectively banning marijuana at the federal level. All the major federal drug laws since then had no Constitutional basis, and all of them seemed to come with general expansions of federal power. Just as Wilson’s ban on heroin and regulation of cocaine came during the activist Progressive Era and marijuana prohibition was part of FDR’s New Deal, the next major wave of federal drug law came in the 1960s, during the Great Society, and culminated in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act just as Nixon was continuing LBJ’s policies of guns and butter.
This relates to the medical marijuana debates since the 1990s. When states began allowing medicinal pot, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both cracked down on their dispensaries, and many advocates of states’ rights decried this violation of federalism. A case went to the Supreme Court on 10th Amendment grounds and all the liberals on the court, all favoring a federal government with few limits on its power, upheld Bush’s raids. Three conservatives dissented, including Clarence Thomas, arguing that the federal government had no authority through the commerce clause to interfere with California’s medical marijuana policy.
If Obama indeed stops the medical marijuana raids, it will probably not be because, as his spokesman says, he believes "that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws." On general questions of policy, including the drug war, Obama and most liberals favor federal supremacy. If California goes through with legalizing marijuana outright, will Obama really do nothing about it? Will the administration actually find ways to crack down on medical marijuana while claiming the operations it’s targeting are not for medical use — as it has done before? Is it possible that Obama, not believing in the constitutional principles at stake, will accelerate other aspects of the drug war?
The Tenth Amendment alone invalidates the federal drug war, and so too does the next one down.
The Ninth Amendment says "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."
This means that just because a personal right is not specifically mentioned does not mean the federal government can infringe upon it. Certainly the rights to use and sell drugs are being attacked in this very way.
And in moral terms, this is what the drug war means. It is the denial of self-ownership. Someone who can’t decide what to put in himself does not own himself. The logic of the drug war is that the government owns you.
We look at all the rights trampled in the name of the drug war and we see how all rights are connected. People are denied the right to self-medicate and take the treatment they desire. Not just in regard to illegal drugs either, but those that are regulated.
The Food and Drug Administration is tied at the hip to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The pharmaceutical interests who control federal prescription drug policy have a stake in maintaining a control on what drugs people can do. The FDA, by keeping life-saving drugs off the market, has forced tens and tens of thousand Americans to die prematurely. Mary Ruwart puts the number in the millions.
What would amuse me if it were not tragic is that so many liberals defend the FDA even as they question the drug war. But if you have a right to do drugs to get high, you surely also have a right to do any drug that you think might save your life. Medical freedom in its true sense is totally impossible without drug freedom.
Because of the drug war, the right to travel is impeded, and the right to have and transfer money. Laws against money laundering — itself a victimless crime — have sprung up almost entirely because of the drug war. And anyone who believes that the right to practice free enterprise is important and guaranteed by the Ninth Amendment must necessarily oppose the drug war, which violates free market principles in a million ways.
Next on our list is the Eighth Amendment, which guarantees that "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
Well surely any punishment is cruel for a victimless crime. Conservatives might say this is a liberal reading of the Amendment. But at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted, prisons as we know them hardly existed, and the notion of imprisoning someone for ten years for growing hemp, on which the Constitution was drafted, would have been seen as quite cruel and quite unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, Congress passed mandatory minimum laws which reduce the discretion of judges in handing out sentences — almost all such federally determined sentences are for drugs or guns.
The average sentence in federal prison for drug trafficking is longer than for sexual abuse. The burgeoning prison state is one of the most horrifying features of modern American history, with the drug war playing a huge part. About one in four or five Americans prisoners are there for non-violent drug offenses — acts that were totally legal in the nineteenth century. Before Reagan stepped up the drug war, there were half a million Americans in prison or jail, and another 1.5 million on parole or probation. There are now more than two million behind bars and seven million total in the correctional system. Prisons grew by 500 percent from 1982 to 2000 in my state of California.
One out of four or five prisoners are there for drugs alone. And for their non-crime, they are sentenced to a personal totalitarianism: Gang violence, an alarming frequency of prison rape, beatings and sometimes death. Americans by the hundreds of thousands who have never raised a finger against anyone are in constant fear of being abused and turned into slaves by their cellmates. How any American can think this is in any way consistent with civilized society boggles the mind.
Bail is often ridiculously high for drug war victims — $1 million or more. The advent of asset forfeiture — whereby the government confiscates your property and essentially accuses it of being guilty of a civil offense — has become an effective way to circumvent the "excessive fines" clause.
What about the Seventh Amendment? It reads: "In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."
I mentioned civil asset forfeiture. It is important to recognize that there is no criminal hearing for the vast majority of forfeiture victims. The property is seized through civil litigation. But since the property itself, and not the owner, is on trial, the Bill of Rights offers no protection. There’s no right to a trial. If a person wants to reclaim his confiscated property, he must ask for a trial. If the court rules that the property be returned, the government can ask for another one, or merely make return of the property contingent upon the victim paying tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
You might be a charter pilot who has his plane taken as part of a drug investigation, and be unable to pay the six grand to get your plane back after being bankrupted by the legal system. This happened to Billy Munnerlyn in the early 1990s. You could be the wrong color or have the wrong amount of cash on you and lose it all to confiscators who get to keep a cut of what they steal.
One point of the Seventh Amendment was to protect the rights of Americans to sue government officials for wrongdoing, and have a fair trial — not the type of mock trial the Founders saw used by the British Crown to let their officials off easy. The drug war has turned this entire idea on its head. Now the government can just take your property without charging you and all you can do is hope that it lets you make your case in a fixed sham proceeding that you are innocent.
The Sixth Amendment reads, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."
For standard crimes like murder, theft, rape and the like, it is perhaps possible to have trials reasonably available to every suspect. But there are simply too many drug offenders for this and no victims to serve as reliable witnesses. So the standard of evidence has been lowered to the point where the mere existence of enough cash and a cop’s say-so is enough to convict.
What’s more, defense attorneys are often burdened with a hundred clients at once, so they must prioritize and leave those who are fated to only a year in prison to lesser hearings. Some judges have even refused to assign public defenders in drug cases.
A dangerous alternative to the trial system is the "drug court," wrongly touted by some reformers, including the Obama administration. In Obama and Biden’s "Blueprint for Change" they propose to "Expand Use of Drug Courts" to "give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior."
But as Morris Hoffman, a state trial judge in Denver and an adjunct professor of law at the University of Colorado, warned at the USA Today blog in October last year:
[It's] not just that drug courts don’t work, or don’t work well. They have the perverse effect of sending more drug defendants to prison, because their poor treatment results get swamped by an increase in the number of drug arrests. By virtue of a phenomenon social scientists call “net-widening,” the very existence of drug courts stimulates drug arrests.
Police are no longer arresting criminals, they are trolling for patients. Denver’s drug arrests almost tripled in the two years after we began our drug court. At the end of those two years, we were sending almost twice the number of drug defendants to prison than we did before drug court.
Attempting to win the drug war, even in a more progressive sense, is thus no substitute for abandoning it altogether. The only change I can believe we’ll see under Obama is more erosion of the Sixth Amendment.
We’re just getting started. The Fifth Amendment states: "No person shall be. . . subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
Mandatory drug testing can be seen as self-incrimination, as soon as the results are used in criminal prosecution. Civil asset forfeiture has allowed for the deprivation of life and liberty without due process, and also for the effective phenomenon of double jeopardy, as people are punished both in the civil and criminal systems.
The Psychotropic Substances Act of 1978 expanded the use of forfeiture to include any property connected to the drug crime in any manner. An early 1990s study estimated that 80% of people who lost their property to civil asset forfeiture were never charged with a crime.
We often hear of money being confiscated for drug residue, which can be found on over 90% of the cash in circulation. We hear of people losing their homes, cars, boats and businesses because of the presence of marijuana seeds. The drive to get loot, some of which police get to personally keep, has even led to some deaths, as was the case with Donald Scott, a California rancher gunned down because bureaucrats wanted to seize his land on which they claimed they found some seeds. Michael Bradbury, the Ventura County DA, said that the police raid was “motivated at least in part, by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the government… [The] search warrant became Donald Scott’s death warrant.”
I shouldn’t even have to discuss how the Fourth Amendment has been compromised.
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Where to begin? Warrants have become a mere bureaucratic technicality, rubberstamped or often neglected altogether in the pursuit of drug offenders. No-knock raids have become a commonplace in modern American life. 92-year-old women are murdered and have drugs planted on them. Men who shoot no-knock invaders are sentenced to death, and if they’re lucky, have their sentences reduced to life — this happened to Cory Maye in Mississippi. Children are shot in the back. Family pets are killed by laughing officers as they break into homes searching for drugs.
With a real crime, it is often possible to have an "Oath or affirmation" backing the warrant, which can actually "describe the persons or things to be seized." In a murder case, a warrant can describe a bloody knife. Drug war warrants are typically too vague to pass constitutional muster. Mere suspicion that some law is being broken is often enough.
The courts have ruled that if the government tries to arrest you when you’re in public, and you escape into your home, they can now search the home without a warrant. As for automobiles, drug war roadblocks have erased the Fourth Amendment concerning cars, which are now treated as the property of the state.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that police may prevent people from entering their own homes while the police apply for a warrant. These abuses are often glorified on television as the necessary implements to catch vicious criminals, but they originated with, and are principally used for, the war on drugs.
Americans tend to look at the Third Amendment as an anachronism. "No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law." Surely this hasn’t been touched by prohibition, has it?
Even by a very narrow reading, I believe it has. In one instance, in 1997, 40 members of the Army National Guard moved into the Las Palmas Housing Project in Puerto Rico to search for drugs. Years later, there were hundreds there.
More broadly, the entire spirit of the Third Amendment has been trounced. The point of the amendment was to prevent the abuses seen with the British Quartering Act, to protect Americans from having to quarter soldiers — to support them, even financially — except at wartime when and through legal means. But all around us, we have seen the police militarized in the name of the drug war.
Some conservatives objected when Bush modified the insurrection act and amassed more presidential power to call up the National Guard on his own say-so. But this trend began before 9/11. In a hearing on the drug war in 1994, then Congressman Chuck Schumer said, “The National Guard is a powerful, ready-made fighting force. Redefining its role in the post Cold War era presents exciting possibilities in the war against crime.”
Also troubling have been the attempts to weaken Posse Comitatus, which since Reconstruction has forbade the use of the military in civilian law enforcement. But before the war on terrorism, there was the drug-war loophole. In the 1980s, Posse Comitatus was amended to allow for military-police cooperation in drug interdiction. Whereas the military was understood to be inappropriate for the enforcement of federal civil rights during Reconstruction, it was supposedly okay for the drug war. This precedent culminated in the largest massacre of American civilians by their own government since Wounded Knee.
Why was the military involved in Waco sixteen years ago? Because the government decided to treat their upcoming publicity-stunt raid as a drug measure. They claimed the Branch Davidians had a meth lab. That’s how they got the warrant and military involved. That’s how they got the military weapons. It was only later that the excuse shifted to child abuse or illegal gun ownership.
Which brings us to the Second Amendment. One of the terrible tragedies of our time is that more people do not understand the connection between the drug war and gun rights.
As soon as violating people’s rights to find drugs became excusable, the crusade against private gun ownership got a big boost. Both concern the ownership of inanimate objects. As wars on possession crimes, both government crusades rely on the same kinds of dirty tactics, the punishment of minor offenders with disproportionately long sentences as a deterrent, the erosion of due process, privacy and the rights of the accused.
The relationship between the drug war and violent crime has been documented. The spike in violent crime following prohibition has traditionally led to more severe enforcement of gun laws. Both gun control and the drug war lead to violent black markets, and thus more state power in a spiraling vicious cycle of mutual reinforcement.
It was, after all, the bootlegging gangs that emerged out of alcohol prohibition that served as the inspiration for the first major federal gun law: The National Firearms Act of 1934. A year after the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 passed on a similarly used an abusive interpretation of the Commerce Clause.
Moreover, just as with terrorism, the two issues became linked in law enforcement. Federal law mandates additional penalties if drug dealers are caught in mere possession of a firearm. Nobody wants to stick up for the rights of drug dealers to keep and bear arms. But so long as they are violating no one’s rights, they should be left in peace. There are many legitimate reasons, from a moral perspective, that a dealer would want to defend himself.
Many non-violent drug convicts are automatically denied the right to bear arms. This is a serious and grave attack on the human rights of drug convicts who have already paid a debt to society that they didn’t even owe.
The lesson is clear: If you want your right to self-defense protected, you must oppose drug prohibition.
Last but not least is the First Amendment, which states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
For years, politicians have wanted to censor us, using the drug war as an excuse. Probably the most notable example was Senators Feinstein and Hatch’s proposed Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, which in its original language would have outlawed speech that advocated drug use or production and cracked down on websites that merely linked to sites that sold drug paraphernalia. Then there is the more general chilling effect of students being harassed in public schools for outwardly advocating drug use or legalization.
Here in New Hampshire, Ian Freeman has been threatened with criminal penalties for the act of advocating drug possession.
As for religious liberty, American Indians have long used hallucinogens as religious rites, and have risked penalties under federal law for the peaceful exercise of religion. This brings us to a fundamental incompatibility between the First Amendment and the drug war.
Under the American Indian Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1994, American Indians can use peyote because it is part of their religion. But if something is peaceful, anyone should be allowed to do it, whether it is recognized by the government as religious or not. For peyote users to be jailed because they do not believe in its spiritual dimension is a de facto official government endorsement and granted privilege for some religious groups. If it can conceivably be allowed for the religious, it must constitutionally be allowed to everyone. Yet for peyote users to be jailed despite their religion is a violation of their religious liberty. The only way to reconcile religious liberty with federal drug law is to abolish it altogether.
Thus we see that Ludwig von Mises was hardly off the mark. The entire Bill of Rights has been shredded in the drug war. In Constitutional terms, "If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption," one does indeed "take all freedoms away." With even the precious First Amendment battered, Mises was right that the drug warriors "unwittingly support the case of censorship, inquisition, religious intolerance, and the persecution of dissenters."
The alternative, say the drug warriors, would be worse. They persist in their claims that we are utopians and unrealistic. But it is their vision of a drug-free America that is unrealistic. America’s prisons are constantly monitored and prisoners have very little of what we would call civil liberty, yet drugs flow throughout the system. America itself could become one big drug prison and their vision would be no closer to being obtained.
And look what their policies have produced in our real world. I have explained how one casualty of the drug war has been the whole slate of our Constitutional liberties. But there have been other, sometimes more subtle, casualties as well.
Drug War Casualty: Truth and Honest Debate
In all wars, truth is a casualty. The drug war is no exception. Consider how much the prohibitionists have poisoned the debate. Any advocate of legalization is questioned for his motives. If you oppose the drug war, you must support drug use or use it yourself. It is no different from the smearing of all war opponents as supporters for the enemy regime.
And so when you question the drug war, you are supposed to do all you can to condemn drugs and make it clear that you hate them as much as the next guy. You are not supposed to question the propaganda itself. You are not supposed to say that, while there are real risks and dangers, we should dispassionately assess them and not succumb to hysteria. You are not supposed to say most of the war propaganda is a lie.
Mere scientific interest in the ins and outs of drug interaction with the body is, in fact, seen as some sort of subversive tendency, rather than in an honest curiosity about the very legitimate science of pharmacology. And its importance as a science is one that transcends the drug debate, since it has been through the study of drugs that we learned so much about our brains and biology in the first place. There would be no understanding of endorphins had it not been for the discovery of morphine. We know much more about the brain because of marijuana than we would have otherwise. This is a very important area of inquiry, and the freedom to conduct drug research is yet another casualty of the drug war.
All drugs are poisons, as was explained by Paracelsus, the 16th century founder of modern pharmacology. All drugs are poisons. Most can be very dangerous, and most can have potential benefits. The question is dosage and context.
Internationally, controversy over drugs goes back centuries. In Muslim culture, the question of whether coffee consumption was consistent with the Koran emerged in the early 16th century.
In American culture, drugs began inspiring hysteria in the late 19th century. Before that, you could buy cocaine at the store. Today, tens of billions are spent to ensure it has to be bought at the street corner and in parks.
Marijuana has been used for five thousand years in China. The Turks, Indians and Assyrians all began using it more than two thousand years ago. Ancient Greeks like Homer, Herodotus, and Theocritus wrote about its medical benefits. It serves very well as an anti-emetic, muscle relaxant, glaucoma treatment and sedative and is used for migraines, menstrual cramps, seizures, asthma and nausea. 50% or so of oncologists report giving it to cancer patients.
It was taken in a variety of ways and probably smoked before tobacco. Cannabis, from which the word "canvas" originates, was also the most important source of fiber for thousands of years until the 20th century. About fifteen percent of users abuse the drug, just as with alcohol.
During the deliberations to make it illegal, the federal government claimed it would make you violent, and then later reversed itself and claimed it would make young men pacifistic and unwilling to go to war. They say the new marijuana is dangerous, more like hard drugs, but no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose and probably no one ever will. Lab tests indicate it would take 40,000 doses to kill someone — about ten thousand times as many doses of alcohol as one would need to die, and about 200 times as many doses of caffeine. They say it’s a gateway drug, but decriminalized marijuana in Holland has not resulted in more cocaine or heroin use, or even pot use.
As for the idea that no one who uses it can accomplish anything, I would defer to Michael Phelps, Carl Sagan, and the bulk of artists and musicians of my parents’ generation, as well as the last three presidents. (Okay, perhaps there is a criminal element associated with marijuana, after all.)
Heroin is perhaps the quintessential "hard drug," but it is closely related to morphine and codeine. Perhaps it would be used in hospitals to this day if it were not completely illegal. Notably, there is no death from chemical withdrawal from heroin, and most people who abuse it eventually get over it. So much of the damage done by it is exacerbated by prohibition. Overdoses and lack of impurity arise because people do not know how much they are using, and no one bothered to inform them seriously of the risks. The legal barriers to syringe availability have famously led to a rise in HIV transmission.
Since heroin is essentially akin to very strong morphine and codeine, it is ironic that the conservatives were so quick to defend Rush Limbaugh when he was caught with Oxycontin, also simply a very powerful opiate, which he had allegedly been abusing illegally.
Cocaine comes from the coca leaf, native to the western hemisphere and still used in South America, mixed with tea, as a treatment for upset stomachs. The leaf has been used thousands of years. The chemical was isolated in 1860 and its most common recreational use after this was in beverages — in elixirs, Coca Cola, and Vin Mariani, a red wine with the drug in it that was fancied by Thomas Edison, Jules Vern and Pope Leo the VIII. (Incidentally, cocaine was removed from Coca Cola years before it was illegal, due to market considerations.)
When they started cracking down on coca leaves, powder cocaine became more popular. When they leaned heavier on that, crack cocaine got on the streets — perhaps with a little direct help from the government. The more the government cracks down, the purer the drug tends to get, as it is easier to transport. Liquor became big under Prohibition and then subsided afterwards. We could probably expect a similar response from ending the prohibition of cocaine.
Cocaine can cause psychosis, heart problems and is one of the most addiction-prone, but its full risks should be analyzed thoughtfully, not mindlessly. There is no death from withdrawal, for example. A lot of the hysteria surrounding cocaine in the last couple of decades was sparked by the tragedy of Len Bias, a senior from the University of Maryland, drafted by the Boston Celtics, who died of an overdose. The media did not report, however, that Bias did not snort it — he more likely ate it, given the massive amounts in his body. Many of the worst abuses come with mixing cocaine with alcohol, which produces cocaethylene in the liver, which is very stressful to the cardiovascular system.
Amphetamine, also called "speed," is also extremely misunderstood. The recreational version is so closely related to so many common pharmaceuticals that this is an area of particular hypocrisy. Speed was prescribed in the 1930s for asthma and the 1950s for weight loss. Today it’s used for ADD and ADHD. I don’t necessarily approve of all this, but it is odd to think of it as a criminal act in one context and socially approved in another.
Methamphetamine is especially singled out as a devil drug, but consider this: On the streets, the drug was long produced in two chemical forms: D and L Methamphetamine. L Methamphetamine has another name — desoxyephedrine. Desoxyephedrine was for years the active ingredient in Vicks Inhaler. The molecule L-Methamphetamine was illegal — a schedule I drug — but the FDA looked the other way as it was marketed far and wide for people with the common cold.
LSD and Hallucinogens
After Albert Hoffman discovered LSD in the 1930s and, as a scientist in neutral Switzerland, experimented with the substance in the midst of world war, the drug became a key ingredient in biopsychiatry. There is no big risk of overdose, withdrawal or addiction, and the most abusive uses of the substance were probably when the CIA was giving it to unsuspecting subjects as part of the agency’s MK Ultra program.
Dozens of studies have shown the use of LSD to deal with alcoholism, death anxiety and the like. Thousands of patients used it effectively for psychological treatment in the 1950s and 1960s, before it was made totally illegal.
In the 1960s, LSD was accused of causing chromosome damage, a claim debunked in 1971. Other myths include the idea that LSD is typically contaminated with strychnine, speed or PCP, that it causes blindness, birth defects and insanity. Unfortunately, those who possess LSD and punished not by the weight of the substance, but by the weight of the carrier — which is why some people who have been caught with just a few doses of it are now rotting in prison for the rest of their lives. We wouldn’t want them to have a bad trip, after all.
In the late 1990s, ecstasy was the new drug scourge, the new great threat to America’s youth. When did this stuff come about? It was actually first used about a century ago, and only its illegality has made it such a taboo recreational choice.
Ecstasy can cause oxidative serotonin axon damage and it can lead to dehydration in careless dancers and its long-term effects are not completely understood. If scientists were allowed to more freely research it and all drugs, we would know much more.
Much of what’s available on the street is not even really MDMA, or it is cut with DXM — a legally available hallucinogen you can find in cough syrup — although that is, of course, a result of the drug war. But I remember about a decade ago a photograph of a brain supposedly destroyed entirely by ecstasy use. In fact, it was an artist’s fabrication.
For years, ecstasy was used to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, marital counseling, and other psychological therapies. These were made illegal when MDMA was banned. However, in 2005 the Food and Drug Administration allowed for MDMA experimental trials for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, to help them deal with flashbacks and reoccurring nightmares. This was its original common use, and yet, whereas some soldiers are apparently allowed access to the treatment, for the rest of us it’s still an excuse to violate the Bill of Rights.
Drug War Casualty: Common Sense
Along with truth and honest debate, we have often lost common sense. In 1970, the government began drug scheduling — putting substances in one of five categories to determine the degree of regulation. Currently, marijuana, heroin and hallucinogens are Schedule I — illegal under all circumstances — cocaine is schedule II, and so forth.
In 1986, so as to consolidate the drug war and cover any loopholes, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Analog Act. This abominable law targeted so-called "designer drugs." This meant that any chemical that was molecularly similar, or similar in effect, to any Schedule I or II drug would immediately be treated as Schedule I. You could see the absurdity in this, since what constitutes a similar effect is somewhat subjective and the government has a hard time deciphering such things fairly. Why is LSD illegal when you can get atropine and belladonna, mandrake and other plants that do something "similar" enough? And what constitutes similarities in molecular structure is a somewhat useless question, when we consider that a simple modification can turn nutmeg into a hallucinogen.
Whereas before, government pursued enumerated drugs, now we were moving to a day when drugs would only be safe if they were exempted from prohibition.
Occasionally, the drug war has singled out relatively benign substances in addition to the regulars. For those of you who use Sudafed, you will sympathize with this. I find that pseudoephedrine is one of the few over-the-counters that works for me. It clears up my sinuses. I am a big fan.
But now you must go through an Orwell novel just to get the stuff. You have to show your ID and sign your name to a federal database so they can assure you don’t buy more than your monthly allowance. The idea is this will stop people from manufacturing meth.
In just the time I’ve been an active drug war opponent, I have seen the government widen its ridiculous drug war to include a number of supposedly horrible menaces — the reefer madness de jour. They’ve targeted Qat, a leaf that is widely chewed in East Africa and especially by Somali immigrants; GHB, a chemical that is made in everyone’s brain; ephedra, a natural stimulant that when used responsibly avoids many of the nasty side effects of caffeine. And, now, there is the scare about the "new marijuana" — salvia divinorum, a plant that virtually no one is addicted to and that very few people even find recreational.
Meanwhile, of course, tobacco claims hundreds of thousands of lives a year and alcohol causes tens of thousands of is associated with a third or half of suicides and homicides. The damage done to the system by tobacco and its high rate of addictiveness and the toxicity, neural degeneration, heart, liver, muscle birth and pancreatic problems caused by alcohol, which has a chemical withdrawal, unlike cocaine and heroin, indicates these drugs are the most dangerous in our society. Some prohibitionists believe these too should be outlawed. That is of course the logical implication of drug war reasoning.
Drug War Casualty: Free Market Principles
The principles of the free market are obviously not much respected, or even understood, by those who talk highly of free enterprise and then support drug prohibition.
The war on drugs has long been, in large part, about money. The urge to control intoxicants has been one of the greatest powers driving economies for centuries. We all know about the Dutch and British East India companies. The Mayans and Aztecs used cacao for money. Chocolate contains caffeine, theobromine and anandamide — which has a similar effect to marijuana’s THC. Today, coffee remains dominant in commerce, second only to oil.
In the nineteenth century, China was home to the Opium Wars — this time, force was used to keep drug markets open, not closed.
The key is there is demand for drugs, and so there shall be supply. If drugs are restricted, we will have human misery, but people will pay more or find other intoxicating alternatives. Most modern drug abuse has probably been with pharmaceuticals, anyway — barbiturates, benzodiazepines, household inhalants.
Drug War Casualty: The Social Order
The drug war commits grave violence against our social fabric. It has led to a disturbance of the economic order in inner cities, luring teenagers away from legal work with inflated drug profits and subjecting urban life to gang warfare and a doubling of violent crime. It has eroded justice and the rule of law, lowering the standards of justice, weakening constitutional protections and punishing the peaceful much more harshly than many violent offenders are punished. It has undermined legitimate social authority, the community and the family — taking issues that should be resolved civilly and locally and transferring them to police, legislators, bureaucrats, propagandists and the military.
The war on drugs has invaded the family unit. Government schools urging their students to turn their parents in for marijuana use is but one example of the pure socialism represented by the drug war. Even if it fails to achieve its goals, the drug warriors worry about what kind of lesson it would send to the children to legalize drugs.
But what kind of lesson does it send to continue this failed policy? To rip peaceful young Americans from the productive economy and cage them with violent criminals at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a year where many are abused or raped and accustomed to real criminality? What message does it send to say violence against non-aggressors is wrong, unless they are drug users? What message does it send to say the successful people in our society who got away with drug use uncaught were just lucky, and that hundreds of thousands who were less lucky must suffer? What message does it send about property rights or the principles of America to teach kids that their homes, vehicles and lives can be scrutinized by officials looking for drugs?
One of the most heart-wrenching tales concerns an entire community destroyed by the drug war. In 1999, an undercover cop who couldn’t find a steady job reported purchasing cocaine from a hundred people. Dozens went to prison, including about 1/3 of the black male population. There was no evidence of most of their guilt — no fingerprints, no corroborating testimony, no real proof at all. Some had rock-solid alibis. The whole town was destroyed by a single officer and an evil drug policy.
Drug War Casualty: International Peace
Finally, a few words about peace, the foundation of any free society. The drug war has hijacked American foreign policy for decades. During the Clinton administration, with the enthusiastic support of Joe Biden, the U.S. launched Plan Colombia, which has used poison to eradicate crops in Latin America, making people sick in the process. Look at Afghanistan and you see how the opium war is going there. In Mexico, we are facing narcoterrorism that would not and could not exist a day longer if they repealed prohibition.
U.S.-supported drug war efforts have meant mass murder abroad. In 2003, the Thai government, with U.S. support, tracked down thousands of individuals named on "black lists" as drug war enemies, and shot them dead. The government then concluded more than half the victims had nothing to do with drugs. They were simply suspicious, perhaps had too much unexplained money. This is how a Thai couple, who had won the lottery, were chosen for government murder. Last year Thai authorities indicated they would continue such a policy. ” Government officials must implement this policy 24 hours a day, but I will not set a target for how many people should die,” said Samak Sundaravej, the new prime minister. The interior minister Chalerm Yubamrung chimed in: “When we implement a policy that may bring 3,000 to 4,000 bodies, we will do it.”
This is the kind of policy the U.S. favors abroad, and this is what we could face here in America if prohibition is not defeated. The drug war cannot succeed, even with the most brutal methods, but the drug warriors will try anything, even the most brutal methods, to wage their war.
But the government would never go as far as in Thailand, right? It would never kill its own citizens outright. Well, consider this. A couple years ago there was some propaganda that al Qaeda was trying to poison the American cocaine supply to hurt American citizens. No one sensed the irony. The Carter administration poisoned Mexican marijuana with paraquat. The policy continued under Reagan. Reagan’s Drug Czar Carlton Turner defended the practice, saying he didn’t care if drug users died from smoking poisoned marijuana. Turner had also tried selling fake paraquat-testing kits through High Times magazine, presumably to trick users into thinking their pot was safe. The same man later was pressured out of office, having gone over the top in declaring marijuana a cause of homosexuality and AIDS and calling for the death penalty for drug offenses.
A Threat to American Civilization and the Prospects for Change
Thus we see all the great American principles undermined by the drug war. As a functional society, a culture of individual liberty and family values, a nation that respects the rule of law and the sovereignty of other countries, America has declined under the drug war. What makes America America is truly at stake.
Conservatives don’t generally want to think of the drug war as un-American, but that’s what it is in the most important sense of the term. Personal freedom and responsibility, the bedrock of the American promise, are simply incompatible with the national crusade against drugs.
Indeed, it is civilization itself under attack. Ayn Rand defined civilization as "the process of setting man free from men" and "the progress toward a society of privacy.” This process and progress have been derailed by drug prohibition, which uproots the very foundations of civil life.
I’ve given the bad news, so what are our prospects for change? Does Obama’s declared policy of ending the medical marijuana raids indicate a future where the drug war will be significantly reined in?
Here’s my concern. If they only cut back on medical marijuana crackdowns, and some state ever does legalize marijuana, the feds can still overstep states rights and persecute users. Short of that, they might still crack down on caregivers while claiming they are going after non-medical use.
Furthermore, some of the medical marijuana reform movement is wed to the idea of government regulating the pot dispensaries more and getting more involved. Some of them even advocate stepping up enforcement on the hard drugs.
The problem is, it is the enforcement of laws against hard drugs that actually create most of the tragedies. Marijuana causes more middle class people to be arrested, ticketed, even jailed, and that is terrible. But it is laws against heroin, cocaine and the like that explain the long prison sentences and the worst abuses of human rights. It is also the harder drugs that distort our foreign policy, corrupt our law enforcement, and lead to the most violent crime. People shoot each other over cocaine more than marijuana.
If they were to divert more resources to other parts of the drug war, the problems might even get worse. The legalization of marijuana will be blamed.
Also, another thing to consider: The drug war, as I’ve explained, is deeply wrapped up in so many of our liberties and values, that any reform that does not understand the fundamental issues at stake could yield something worse. Alcohol prohibition was repealed because it was a practical disaster, a drain on resources, and out of step with the culture. They legalized it to tax it during the Depression.
If this practical approach is what causes marijuana to be decriminalized, we are still dealing with the fundamental attack on self-ownership, with all the collateral damage that implies. Just as the bureaucrats in charge of prohibition went on to agitate for marijuana laws and the modern drug war, which is much worse than alcohol prohibition ever was, we risk seeing another policy just as oppressive.
That’s why it’s important to recognize that the drug war is not just about the right to get high conveniently. It is a matter that hits the core of what a civilization as about. The right to consume, possess, cultivate and exchange drugs is wrapped up in every other human right. The right to use drugs stems from the right of self-ownership.
Too many drug reformers are attached to the federal government and do not fully embrace the ideals of liberty and private property, and too many fans of individual liberty and free markets stop short of drug freedom. This is all wrong. People who oppose the drug war should embrace liberty. Those who question federal omnipotence must oppose prohibition.
The war on drugs is a war on law — moral law, economic law, constitutional law, statutory law, common law and natural law. "An unjust law is no law at all," said St. Aquinas. The injustice of the drug war eats away at the very foundations of our legal order.
The war on drugs is a war on people — Americans and foreigners alike. It has strong-armed foreign countries under U.S. global policing and might become a United Nations priority. It is a war on our culture of freedom, tolerance and human decency. It opens the door to hypocrisy and social degeneration. It replaces common sense with social insanity and compassion with cruelty.
The war on drugs is a war on truth, justice, property, peace and the very fabric of our society, on the American way of life, on all the greatest traditions of Western culture. Those who wish to restore a free country cannot ignore this issue or downplay its significance. Our civilization itself is at stake. It is impossible — completely, 100% impossible — to have a free society and a drug war at the same time.
If you cherish America, if you cherish humanity, if you believe in our heritage as a people who stand up for their liberty you must oppose the murderous drug war root and branch.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Berkeley, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.