The Right and the Drug War

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Pat Robertson began publicly criticizing the drug war in December 2010, and he has become more vocal since. Unlike the vague critiques often heard from prominent figures – even Barack Obama has called the drug war a failure – Robertson’s insights have been precise, and consistent, and deeply-rooted. “We here in America make up 5 percent of the world’s population, but we make up 25 percent of jailed prisoners,” he noted in March, appearing genuinely moved by the issue. “I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat … alcohol,” he told the New York Times. Beyond the practical argument, Robertson sees the moral dimension: “I believe in working with the hearts of people, and not locking them up.”

In light of his key role in the religious right, Robertson’s comments take on special significance. The man speaks to a particular strain of social conservatives, not straying from their rhetorical comfort zone even as he champions drug legalization for principled reasons. He even blames the left for a burgeoning police state: “Every time the liberals pass a bill – I don’t care what it involves – they stick criminal sanctions on it.”

Should “theocons” adopt a more tolerant view on drugs, it would shake the entire right-wing on the issue. They would be the last prominent faction to demonstrate skepticism. The American right has long had its share of drug-war critics. William F. Buckley articulately defended legalization on a half-hour PBS special in 1996. George Will has often explained the unintended consequences of prohibition, although he still falls short of calling for decriminalization. Barry Goldwater expressed skepticism toward the criminal-justice approach.

Neocons have either not cared much about drugs and other domestic matters or have sometimes embraced drug decriminalization as a nod to their social liberal side. Fusionist and libertarian-leaning conservatives have tended toward decriminalization. Right-wing talk radio, the information source for millions, has also featured many voices skeptical of drug laws, from the sensationalist Michael Savage to Jeffersonians like Mike Church. The common-sense center-right has often decried the futility of marijuana prohibition in particular.

Missing in the conservative approach to the issue has been an understanding of the grave threats prohibition poses to the social institutions that cultural conservatives, including the Christian right, hold dear. If Robertson foreshadows a coming shift in the Silent Majority’s sentiments, this void will finally be filled. Despite the prominent critics among their ranks, everyday conservatives have consistently revealed themselves in polls as more hostile to decriminalization than liberals and moderates. A socially conservative turnaround on the issue would change everything. Just as many moralists who championed temperance turned against alcohol prohibition after seeing the social destruction it unleashed in the 1920s, today’s social conservatives could play a defining role in ending drug prohibition.

The drug war embodies secular leviathan like few other government efforts. The federal anti-drug crusade began with Woodrow Wilson’s signing of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, escalated with Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, and tyrannically expanded to cover previously legal psychedelics and other substances during Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Bill Clinton increased marijuana arrests and drug task force spending, greatly accelerating the Reagan-Bush drug war. Under Obama, the policies have once again enjoyed a boost: his 2009 stimulus bill included major hikes in drug enforcement spending that had dwindled under George W. Bush.

If alcohol prohibition qualified as the progressives’ greatest domestic triumph in the early 20th century, drug prohibition has achieved even more as a usurpation of traditional morality and the social order. Constitutionalism, states’ rights, subsidiarity, community norms, traditional medicine, family authority, and the role of the church have all been violently pushed aside to wage an impossibly ambitious national project to control people in the most intimate of ways. For years, the federal DARE program encouraged children to rat out their parents for minor drug offenses, an intrusion into family life all too reminiscent of Soviet Russia.

Prohibition-fueled gang warfare has not only inflicted violence upon the social fabric; the crime wave has also served as a rationale to weaken the very civil liberties that conservatives most cherish – particularly Second Amendment rights. Bloodshed on city streets attributed to the 1920s liquor trade spawned the National Firearms Act of 1934. Congress specifically targeted drug users in its Gun Control Act of 1968. The 1990 Crime Control Act focused on creating drug-free school zones, but semi-automatic rifles also came under its ambit. Even the 1993 Waco standoff, rationalized by the Clinton Justice Department as an anti-assault-weapons operation, started with search warrants dubiously directed at finding a meth lab. In the 1980s drugs had served as the excuse to carve out exceptions to the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act forbidding military involvement in domestic law enforcement. The radicalized grassroots patriots in the post-Cold War 1990s who saw national police power as a threat to their liberty, their guns, and their families should have recognized America’s drug laws as a principal culprit.

Today drug money finances not just domestic gangs but foreign thugs as well. In the last decade many reporters have commented on how opium profits have enriched the Taliban – a nearly unavoidable result of America’s drug policies, which keep narcotics highly profitable. But today the most conspicuous violent foreign threat comes from Mexico. The cartels, whose killing spree has taken tens of thousands of lives in just the last couple years, have shattered the peace on the border and become the subject of the Obama administration’s most notorious scandal. Some conservatives have wondered aloud whether the “Fast and Furious” program of arming Mexican drug gangs was intended to create an excuse to crack down on American gun ownership. Regardless of the ATF’s intentions, the drug violence has indeed served as a rationale to restrict American liberties, including the right to bear arms. But very little of this would be possible if these cartels could not fund themselves with the amplified profits that drug prohibition produces. (No wonder all of the conservative movement’s heroes of economic science – Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman – were unambiguous in opposing the drug war, on practical as well as moral grounds.)

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Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is research fellow at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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