Hard Questions on the Drug War

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As I have maintained in all of my articles on the drug war, the war on drugs is a monstrous evil that has ruined more lives than drugs themselves. The war on drugs is really just a war on individual liberty, private property, civil liberties, financial privacy, personal responsibility, the free market, a free society, and freedom itself.

Take the case of Jesse Webster, 46, a former cocaine dealer from Chicago who was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 for “participating in a drug conspiracy and filing false tax returns.”

Webster turned himself in 1995 when he learned that the police were looking for him. Because he refused to become a confidential informant, he was denied leniency and sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonviolent first offense.

For a sentence like that, Webster said, “I thought I’d have to hurt somebody, do bodily harm.”

The A.C.L.U. “estimates that more than 2,000 federal inmates are serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses.” Like James Romans, someone who is serving a life sentence for selling marijuana. Even worse, “in a sample study of 169 federal inmates incarcerated for nonviolent crimes,” the A.C.L.U. “found dozens who were first-time offenders, as well as many others who had only misdemeanors and juvenile infractions in their past.” And that doesn’t even take into account the state prison population.

Although Webster now shares a 65 square-foot cell in a medium security prison in Southern Illinois, he spent 16 years in maximum security prisons—including Leavenworth—with murderers and rapists; that is, people who committed actual crimes.

“I should have done time,” Mr. Webster said. “But a living death sentence?” “A commutation of sentence which would result in his service of 20 or so years in prison is enough punishment for his crimes,” wrote Judge Zagel (the judge who sentenced him under the harsh sentencing guidelines of the day) to the Office of the Pardon Attorney of the Justice Department.

No, Mr. Webster, you should not have done time—any time. And no, Mr. Zagel, 20 years is not enough punishment—it is 20 years too many. This is one prisoner serving time in federal prison who should be released immediately. But not because the sentence was too harsh, not because it was a nonviolent offense, not because it was his first offense, not because he only received three minor infractions in prison, not because his last infraction was in 1997, not because he earned in prison the trusted position of captain’s orderly, not because he has kept in contact with his mother, not because his mother is ill, not because he has seen his granddaughter only once, not because he got religion, not because he has been reformed, not because he has been rehabilitated, and not because we should feel sorry for him.

As much as we may not like the personal habits of cocaine users and the chosen profession of cocaine dealers, in a free society the government has no business regulating, interfering with, or prohibiting the free and voluntary exchange of any substance. The very fact that we have a war on drugs means that we don’t have a free society.

My thoughts on the evils of the drug war are contained in my book The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom and the other articles on the subject that I have written since the book was published in September of 2012.

What I do want to address here is a sincere question from a reader that I received in response to a short blog post I did a month or so ago about the case of Jesse Webster. Like any good libertarian, my reader’s initial reaction was that “there was no crime committed, since neither drug dealing nor tax evasion actually has a victim.” However, a family member of his raised a hypothetical scenario that I’m sure others have broached in the past:

What if he had sold drugs to a 12 year old and that 12 year old died from an overdose?  Would the sentence have still been unjustified?

My short answer is yes. My longer answer is this:

Even if it be acknowledged that someone might justifiably be sentenced to life in prison without parole because he sold drugs to a 12 year old and that 12 year old died from an overdose, that is still no argument for the drug war. It is rather an argument for punishing those who contribute to the death of a minor. What if instead of a 12 year old someone sold drugs to a 52 year old and that 52 year old died from an overdose? Would anyone recommend a sentence of life in prison without parole? Would anyone recommend a sentence at all? The issue here is the legal distinction between minors and adults as it relates to crime and punishment. This I leave to libertarian legal theorists.

Not in any particular order, here are some additional thoughts on the matter.

1. There are some hard questions on the drug war, usually regarding drugs and children. Questions of this nature should immediately raise a red flag because invoking “the children” is a standard tactic of the Left when seeking to justify gun control, WIC, food stamps, Head Start, Medicaid, etc. Much evil has been done by government in the name of child safety and child protection.

2. Just because libertarians oppose the war on drugs and support a free market in all drugs doesn’t mean that they believe it would be a good thing for anyone to use drugs, that they are indifferent to or unconcerned about the dangers of drugs in the hands of children, or that they are naïve about the potentially negative consequences of drug abuse.

3. If drugs were legal, I think it is fair to assume that governments would treat them like tobacco and alcohol; that is, it would be illegal for minors to possess them and for people to sell them to minors.

4. Has the war on drugs prevented drug dealers from selling drugs to 12 year olds? Of course it hasn’t.

5. The question of the legality of any or all drugs is purely a state matter. Even if someone thought that the states should wage war on drugs (I don’t), they would have to at least acknowledge that the federal government has no authority whatsoever under the Constitution to incarcerate anyone for selling drugs to anyone, including children.

6. What if someone sold a nail gun or a gallon of bleach to a 12 year old and that 12 year old died from misusing either product? Would a sentence of life in prison without parole be justified? If not, then why should the sale of certain drugs be treated differently? Just because the government has declared that certain drugs are illegal while nail guns and bleach are legal?

7. It has been estimated that 7,600 Americans die every year from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin. Should someone who sells (or gives) aspirin to a 12 year old and that 12 year old dies from an overdose be locked up for life without the possibility of parole? Would anyone but the emotionally distraught parent of the dead child even think of such a thing?

8. A 12 year old certainly bears some responsibility for buying drugs and overdosing on drugs. The question did not concern someone forcing a 12 year old to take drugs or tricking him into doing so. And neither did the question concern selling drugs to a 2 year old or a 12 year old with the mental capacity of a 2 year old.

9. The parents of a 12 year old who buys drugs and overdoses on drugs may bear some responsibility if they never bothered to warn their 12 year old about buying or taking anything from strangers. And even if the seller was a family friend, the parents still may bear some responsibility if they never warned their 12 year old about the dangers of drugs.

10. Drug dealers, like any “normal” businessmen, want repeat business, not dead customers.

11. Being a drug dealer doesn’t necessarily mean that one is so stupid and/or evil that he would sell drugs to a 12 year old.

12. Would a 12 year old be able to come up with enough money to buy enough of a drug to overdose?

Neither I nor any other libertarian professes to have all the “right” or “libertarian” answers to every question raised about the drug war. One thing is for sure: The world is full of dangerous items and substances, but it is the job of individuals, families, churches, consumer groups, and concerned organizations to keep Americans from using or abusing them—not the government.

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