Drug laws have been one of the most destructive forms of government intervention in 20th century America. Not only have they been the indirect cause of thousands of murders, thefts, robberies, burglaries, and other crimes against innocent people and their property, they also have served as the excuse for some of the most monumental governmental assaults on individual freedom in American history.
It is important first to differentiate between the drug user, on the one hand, and the drug user who inflicts violence on another person while under the influence of drugs. There is no question that government has a legitimate role in punishing the latter; after all, that is the function of government to protect individuals from the violent acts of others.
What about the people who consume drugs but who inflict no violence on others? Does the State have a legitimate role in inflicting punishment on these individuals? Absolutely not! People do many bad things to themselves smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, eat candy, and inject heroin and it is no business of the State to incarcerate or fine them for doing so.
Why is it that people take drugs? The answers, of course, are many and varied. Drug usage is prevalent among the rich, middle class, and poor among whites, Orientals, blacks, and Hispanics among the young, middle-aged, and elderly. Each individual has a different reason for taking drugs.
Yet, it would be safe to say that underlying many of the reasons is the fact that life for many drug users is bleak. Drugs provide a pleasant means of escape, albeit temporarily, for people who suffer a bleak existence.
The infliction of incarceration or fines on these people does not make their lives less bleak. Ultimately, each individual must took deep within himself for the answers to a life of fulfillment without mind-altering substances. The coercive power of government is not able to accomplish this for him.
Moreover, it is important to point out that, in many cases, the same government which seeks to punish people who try to escape the bleakness of life through drugs is also responsible for creating the conditions of bleakness.
For example, many young Americans, such as black teenagers in Harlem, are prevented by minimum-wage laws from entering the job market. The labor of these individuals is valued by prospective employers at less than the legally established minimum. By preventing employers from hiring these people at their true market wage, albeit less than the legal minimum, the government effectively freezes these people out of earning an honest living. In the 1800s, many young people found it advantageous to work at a low wage in order to learn a trade and perhaps ultimately own their own business. In 20th-century America, however, young people such as those in Harlem are prevented from doing so by government’s minimum-wage laws. How can life under these circumstances be anything but bleak?
One governmental response to this is that young people should instead spend twelve years of their lives in a governmental institution having such subjects as algebra, chemistry, civics, and State history crammed into their heads. The horrors associated with public schooling are well known. But the irony is that in many cases, by being forced to attend public schools, young people are required, by their own government, to spend most of their waking hours at some of the biggest drug centers in the world. How can life under these circumstances be anything but bleak?
If the person tries to seek some means of self-employment, he inevitably finds himself blocked by a myriad of licensing and other regulatory laws which impede or prevent all but the rich or privileged from pursuing many lines of work. If the person is sufficiently fortunate to find some means of earning an honest living, he soon finds that his ability to accumulate a sufficient nest egg to enable him to effectively compete against those who are already wealthy is diminished by high levels of taxation. How can life under these circumstances be anything but bleak?
What about the person who is unable to find any means of legal support due to all of these government barriers? He is told that his solution lies in what is possibly the most addictive and destructive drug of all: government welfare. Like slaves of old, the welfare recipient has his food, housing, medical care, and other basic necessities provided for him. But he also finds his entire essence as a human being destroyed. How can life under these circumstances be anything but bleak?
Now, it is true that people should not attempt to escape the bleakness of life through drugs. But there is some degree of sick perversity when a government which has, in some instances, contributed to their bleakness, then turns around and seeks to inflict punishment on those who do not have the emotional strength to overcome such bleakness without turning to drugs.
Some people believe that by rendering unto Caesar a problem such as drug usage, Caesar can be made to do God’s work by preventing or discouraging people from sinning through the use of drugs. But God does not use force to prevent or discourage people from sinning. He gives man the widest possible ambit of freedom to live his life the way he chooses. In the eyes of God, the individual is free to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, wisdom and foolishness, virtue and vice. If the person chooses wrongly, he knows that he must necessarily bear the responsibility both in this life and the next one.
But it is only through this continuous process of rising and stumbling, moving forward and falling back, that the individual can ever hope to grow as a human being as well as grow close to his God. To the extent that “rightful” conduct is motivated by the threat of punishment from the State, to that extent such conduct means nothing either for the individual or for his God.
Finally, it is important to point out that if drug laws had never been passed in the United States, and if drugs had been legal as they were in the 19th century, drug lords would not have entered the business of selling drugs. Therefore, the deaths of thousands of innocent people, including law enforcement officers, who have been murdered by drug lords would not have taken place. If drug laws had never been passed, drug addicts would have been able to purchase drugs from reputable pharmacies in the same way that alcohol and tobacco addicts can purchase their drugs from reputable companies. Therefore, the deaths associated with impure drugs and dirty needles would not have occurred.
If drug laws had never been passed, drugs which are now illegal would have been as reasonably priced as alcohol and tobacco. Therefore, the thefts, robberies, and burglaries to get the money to pay the exorbitant, black market prices associated with their illegality would not have occurred.
If drug laws had never been passed, there would not have been the tremendous assault on American civil liberties reflected in such intrusive laws as reporting requirements on transfers or deposits of large sums of money. If drug laws had never been passed, there would not have been the significant denigration of fundamental legal rights such as the presumption of innocence which were so cherished by Americans of the 19th century.
While the direct causes of these disasters are drug lords and drug addicts, there is no doubt that their proximate cause encompasses drug laws themselves. The moral responsibility for all of this evil must be shared by more than just the drug lords and the drug addicts.
To the charge of moral culpability for the deprivation of the fundamental right of the American people to be free to live their lives the way they choose … to the charge of moral culpability for the creation of conditions which have caused so many people to seek escape through drugs … to the charge of moral culpability for the thousands of needless deaths, robberies, thefts, and burglaries attributed to drug laws themselves . . . to the charge of moral culpability for denigrating the once-cherished civil and constitutional liberties of the American people … to all of these charges, there can be one, and only one, truthful and rightful plea from the U.S. Government: Guilty as Charged.