The Drug War vs. American Civilization

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"The Drug War vs. American Civilization" by Anthony Gregory

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.
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Here is a link to my site on workplace drug testing.