Politicians have found few better ways to frighten voters than with the specter of drugs. The government’s war on drug users is annually jailing hundreds of thousands of Americans, ruining the neighborhoods of millions of other Americans, and setting precedents for expanded government power in other areas.
Most of the drugs outlawed are indeed harmful, but political grandstanding and endless crackdowns on users have failed to end widespread illicit drug use. Federal drug policy has been vastly more effective in punishing people-more than one million Americans are arrested for drug crimes each year-than in reforming their habits.
Government officials have responded to the failure of their attempts to suppress drug use with demands for ever increasing violence against drug users and suspected drug users. In 1989, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates recommended that drug users “be taken out and shot.” (Gates’s recommendation could have meant executing up to two million people in Los Angeles County alone.) In March 1989, federal drug czar William Bennett suggested abolishing habeas corpus to aid the fight against drugs and later said he would not be opposed to public beheadings of drug dealers.
The U-2 planes that once spied on the Soviet Union have targeted Americans’ homes and fields, searching for any evidence of illicit drug production. In September 1991, federal officials in Florida conducted a test of radar-guided rockets for potential use against the planes of suspected drug traffickers.
The war on drugs is providing a license to terrorize American citizens. For example, some years ago, 200 Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Guard officials descended on the town of Punta de Agua, New Mexico, in armored personnel carriers and surveillance helicopters. They found no drugs.
Politicians are outlawing more and more types of nonviolent behavior in order to strike at drug use. Alexandria, Virginia, enacted a law imposing up to a two-year prison sentence for people who loiter on streets for fifteen minutes and “have at least two face-to-face contacts with others that last less than two minutes and involve motions ‘consistent with an exchange of money or other small objects.’”
In 1992, Tifton, Georgia, outlawed the sales of books, magazines, and pamphlets advocating use of illegal narcotics. City officials invoked the law in 1993 to prevent stores from selling hats bearing marijuana leaves and slogans.
Antidrug hysteria is increasingly victimizing those who use legal drugs, as several recent and well-reported incidents have made clear. In Hamilton, Ohio, a school suspended two students after a girl gave her classmate two Tylenol tablets for a headache.
Federal drug crackdowns have many unrecognized casualties, including millions of Americans undergoing surgery who are denied adequate pain relief. Up to 70 percent of terminal cancer patients do not get enough pain-relief medication. Doctors fear the government will think they are overprescribing narcotics; yet few patients who get narcotics ever become addicted.
Federal efforts to prevent narcotics imports are a dismal failure, as Attorney General Janet Reno concedes. DEA estimates that only about 10 percent of illicit drugs entering the U.S. are seized by law-enforcement officials, while an August 1993 confidential National Security Council review of military efforts to detect and prevent drug smuggling found virtually no impact on the price or supply of cocaine imports.
American University professor Arnold Trebach has described the prisons full of drug offenders as “the American drug gulag.” The number of people in federal and state prisons on drug charges has increased tenfold since 1980; since 1987, drug defendants have accounted for three quarters of all new federal prisoners. Almost 80 percent of the people sentenced to state prisons on drug charges had no history of criminal violence.
The ultimate question is: Who should pay the cost of drug use: society or the user? If drugs were legal, we would still see deaths from overdoses, but there would be far fewer deaths from gun battles among drug dealers, far fewer neighborhoods destroyed by the black market, and far fewer deaths from contaminated drugs. The question is not whether drugs are bad for the individual but whether government has a right to punish people for how they treat their own bodies.