The war on drugs provides a good example of the power of ideas. Twenty years ago, it was mostly libertarians who were challenging this war and calling for it to be ended. Today, people from all walks of life, including law enforcement officers and judges, are calling for an end to the horribly immoral and destructive war on drugs. And the people of two states — Colorado and Washington — recently approved the legalization of marijuana.
In the early 1990s, I would appear on numerous radio talk shows. I knew that the surefire way to light up the phone lines was to call for an end to the drug war. People were shocked at the notion that drugs should be legalized.
The April 1990 issue of our monthly journal, Freedom Daily (now called Future of Freedom) was devoted to the drug war. It is still worth reading Milton Friedman’s Open Letter to U.S. drug czar Bill Bennett, which had been published in the Wall Street Journal and which we reprinted in that issue of our journal.
Today, everything has changed. No one is shocked over the drug-legalization position. While many people still cannot accept it, everyone knows that it is a legitimate position that is being discussed and debated all over the world. Mainstream newspapers all across America are unafraid to publish op-eds and editorials calling for an end to the drug war and do, in fact, publish such articles on a regular basis.
It’s really just a matter of time before the war is abandoned at the federal level. The two groups that are most insistent on the war’s continuation are federal officials and drug lords, which are, not coincidentally, the two groups that benefit most from the war. Both groups know that they would be out of business immediately if drugs were legalized.
Consider the enormous network of drug gangs and drug lords, along with the gang wars, murders, kidnappings, extortion, and other acts of violence that have come with them. The drug lords and drug gangs and drug-war violence have come into existence as a direct result of criminalizing the possession and distribution of drugs.
With the legalization of drugs, the drug lords and drug gangs would be put out of business immediately. The reason? While they thrive in a black (i.e., illegal) market, where violence is the norm, ordinarily these types lack the entrepreneurial and business skills to compete in a legalized, peaceful, free-market environment.
We saw this phenomenon, of course, with respect to booze. The war on alcohol — Prohibition — brought into existence the same types of violent groups that characterize the war on drugs. Al Capone comes to mind. And while federal officials fought the alcohol lords with the same ardor as they fight the drug lords, every time they busted one, a new one would replace him. With the legalization of alcohol, the booze lords were immediately run out of business.
Notice that today, we don’t see booze lords or booze gangs, and we don’t see the violence in the alcohol business that we see in the drug business. That’s because booze is legal while drugs remain illegal.
Thus, it’s ironic that federal officials who spend their lives going after drug lords are so vehemently opposed to drug legalization, since that’s the only way to put the drug lords out of business, once and for all and immediately.
Why do federal officials continue to support the war on drugs? After all, no one can honestly say that it’s a success. Indeed, if it was a success, then it could finally be ended. The fact that there still is a “drug crisis” that merits the continuation of the war on drugs is conclusive proof that the war has still not succeeded, despite decades of warfare.
Federal officials are clearly aware of this. They have to know that all the mantras they employ about the drug war are simply retreads of the mantras they were employing back in the 1960s and 1970s. Different cast of characters, but the same old, tired mantras.
Moreover, federal officials have to realize that no matter how many people they have prosecuted, convicted, and punished over the decades, new drug dealers have soon popped up to take their place. The drug war is the ultimate in Sisyphus endeavors.
So, why then do federal officials continue to insist on the continuation of the war on drugs?
There are two primary reasons.
One, federal officials benefit from the war on drugs. They have their entire careers built around the war. Federal bureaucracies, law enforcement officers, judges, clerks. All of them have families to support and bills and mortgages to pay. They have been trained to fight the war on drugs. They know that if drugs were legalized, the entire drug-war structure would no longer be necessary. They would be out of a job and having to seek employment elsewhere. There are also those federal officials who subsidize their income through bribes that are paid by the drug lords. And there are the federal bureaucracies that have grown dependent on asset-seizure laws.
Two, federal control and dominance over the citizenry plays a major role in this. The drug war perfectly manifests the role of government as master and the role of citizen as serf. Federal officials are essentially saying to people, “We can tell you what you can and cannot put into your mouth. If you violate our instructions, we can punish you with incarceration and fine. We are in charge and you will obey.”
Drug laws are among the ultimate violations of the principles of freedom. When a government wields the authority to punish people for engaging in peaceful behavior, even if such behavior is dangerous or destructive, there is no way that people in that society can truly be considered free. As we libertarians have long pointed out, a free society is one in which people are free to make whatever choices they want, so long as their conduct is peaceful, i.e., no murder, rape, burglary, robbery, etc. Freedom necessarily entails the right to make what others feel are immoral, irresponsible, and self-destructive choices. If people are “free” only to make the choices that others feel are the “right” ones, then people in that society are not truly free.
The drug war has absolutely nothing going for it, and maintaining the employment status of drug lords and federal bureaucrats is not a valid reason to keep it going. It has brought nothing but death, destruction, violence, corruption, and ruination of lives. It is also contributing to the economic bankruptcy of the federal government. Why not go ahead and end it now, rather than later?