Part 1 | Part 2
Believers in a free society should challenge all laws on drug trafficking, drug manufacturing, drug sales, and drug use. They should object to the 750,000 arrests of Americans every year for marijuana possession. They should protest the incarceration of tens of thousands of Americans for drug-related offenses. They should contest the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 and its subsequent amendments, the Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act of 1988, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003, and the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act 2005.
Lovers of liberty should be against the office of the national drug czar, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Narcotics Rewards Program, and the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
All freedom-loving Americans should oppose the DEA and its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, its 21 domestic field divisions, its 227 field offices, its 86 foreign offices in 62 countries, its academy at the Quantico Marine base, its administrator, its deputy administrator, its chief of operations, its chief inspector, its chief financial officer, its chief counsel, its assistant administrators, its 10,000 employees, its 5,500 special agents, its foreign-deployed advisory and support teams, its mobile enforcement teams, its Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) (which eradicates millions of cultivated outdoor and indoor cannabis plants every year and seizes millions of dollars of cultivator assets), its $2.5 billion budget, and its Office of Aviation Operations with its 106 aircraft and 124 pilots.
I reject the government’s war on drugs just as I reject the government’s war on poverty, war on cancer, war on terrorism, and war on liquids on airline flights.
I say these things as someone who doesn’t use illegal drugs, wouldn’t use illicit drugs if they were legalized, and would prefer that no one else use them either. I would remind those who say I am being too extreme that extremism in the defense ofliberty is no vice. I guess I could just say that I oppose root and branch every facet of the government’s war on drugs, but I want not only to make myself perfectly clear, but also to get people to realize just how broad in scope is the state’s war on personal freedom.
I am choosing my words carefully and deliberately: liberty and freedom, individual liberty and personal freedom. These ideals, along with the sanctity of private property, are fundamental in combating the drug war. That does not mean that there aren’t a multitude of other reasons to oppose drug prohibition laws. I can think of seven.
One, the state’s war on drugs, like its war on poverty and its war on terrorism, is a failure. It has clogged the judicial system, unnecessarily swelled prison populations, fostered violence, corrupted law enforcement, eroded civil liberties, and destroyed financial privacy. It has encouraged illegal searches and seizures, ruined countless lives, wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, hindered legitimate pain treatment, turned law-abiding people into criminals, unreasonably inconvenienced retail shopping, and had no impact on the use or availability of most drugs in the United States. The costs of drug prohibition far outweigh any possible benefits.
Two, drug prohibition is unconstitutional. Conservatives who revere the Constitution should support both the freedom to use drugs for any purpose and a free market in drugs. Nowhere does the Constitution authorize the federal government to intrude itself into the personal eating, drinking, or smoking habits of Americans.
Three, it is not the purpose of government to protect people from bad habits, harmful substances, or vice. As the economist Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action,
Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to pro- tect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments…. And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.
Four, just as the government has a calculation problem when it comes to central planning of the economy, so also with drug regulation. The government can only arbitrarily decide which drugs should be legal and which drugs shouldn’t be, which drugs should be sold to minors and which drugs shouldn’t be, which drugs should be regulated and which drugs shouldn’t be, whether opium should be classified as Schedule I or Schedule II, and on and on and on. The drug war fosters too much trust in government planners, regulators, and bureaucrats.
Five, there is no government ban on alcohol and tobacco. Yes, they are heavily regulated, but anyone is free to drink and smoke as much as he wants in his own home. Alcohol abuse and heavy tobacco use are two of the leading causes of death in the United States. It seems rather ludicrous to advocate the outlawing of drugs and not the outlawing of alcohol and tobacco.
Six, vices are not crimes. The average American unfortunately equates making the moral case for drug freedom with making the moral case for murder, theft, or arson. But nothing could be further from the truth. In part one, I mentioned Lysander Spooner, and, because I cannot improve on his work, I refer you to the powerful and immortal words at the beginning of his 1875 treatise, Vices Are Not Crimes:
Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property.
Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.
Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property….
Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property; no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and co-equal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.
And seven, it is a grave mistake to look to the state to enforce morality. It is, in fact, quite absurd, since many of the actions of the U.S. government are among the greatest examples of immoral behavior that one could possibly think of. It makes absolutely no sense for the U.S. government to murder millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Iraqis, and Afghans and then turn around and arrest some poor guy for growing marijuana. Why, then, do so many moral people defend, support, and make excuses for the state, its politicians, its legislation, and its wars? Why would religious people in particular even think of looking to the state to enforce their moral code? Freedom, always freedom
Practical and utilitarian arguments against the drug war are important, but not as important as the moral argument for the freedom to use or abuse drugs for freedom’s sake. The moral case for drug freedom is simply the case for freedom. Freedom to use one’s property as one sees fit. Freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor in whatever way one deems appropriate. Freedom to use one’s body in the manner of one’s choosing. Freedom to follow one’s own moral code. Freedom from being taxed to fund government tyranny. Freedom from government intrusion into one’s personal life. Freedom to be left alone.
It is those of us who advocate the liberty to take drugs and a free market in drugs who are taking the moral high ground. How can anyone with any sense of morality support seizing someone’s property, destroying his family, and locking him up in a cage to be raped and humiliated for smoking a plant the government doesn’t approve of? What kind of a moral code contains stipulations like that? The case for drug freedom is a moral case because the war on drugs is a war on natural, civil, personal, and constitutional rights. Two wrongs don’t make a right. It is not right to act immoral to prevent someone from doing something deemed immoral.
In presenting the moral case for drug freedom I am not distinguishing between legal and illegal drugs or between drugs for medical use and drugs for recreational use. Drugs in and of themselves are not necessarily bad; it depends on how and why they are used. The question is who is going to determine those things. Will it be the individual, in consultation with his family, friends, church, and physician; or will it be the state, in consultation with its legislators, regulators, agents, and bureaucrats? In a free society it is the individual; in an authoritarian society it is the state.
Some libertarians have the idea that absolute drug freedom is a philosophical concept that is fine to intellectually assent to but should never be publicly proclaimed. They consider it an embarrassing, nonessential issue that is best not mentioned outside of libertarian circles. In this regard I like what Mises said:
[As] soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail.
There is one mistake, though, that some libertarians have made. It is one thing to advocate a free society in which individual persons have the liberty to choose a particular lifestyle; but it is inconsistent and ultimately harmful to the cause of liberty to champion a lifestyle choice that considers drug use one of the major tenets of libertarianism, while at the same time championing nonlibertarian issues such as privatizing Social Security, securing educational vouchers, and making taxes fairer.
I am not arguing for the benefits of drugs; I am arguing for the benefits of freedom. Mises again makes a good point:
A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.
Part 1 | Part 2
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 edition of Freedom Daily.