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Three Views on the Drug War

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One of the most important things the Republican congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul said as a guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno recently was what he said during his backstage interview after the show was over.

The first thing Representative Paul was asked was a question submitted by a Jay Leno Facebook fan: “Are you gonna legalize marijuana?” His answer was that he was “not going to enforce any federal laws against marijuana.” He went on to say that there was “no authority in the Constitution to regulate anything a person puts in their body.”

In a Ron Paul interview with Jon Stewart back in October, there was an omitted clip that appeared only online. In that segment, Dr. Paul said he fears the war on drugs more than he fears the drugs themselves. He not only said the war on drugs violates civil liberties, but also made the case for freedom of choice when it comes to drug use, including the freedom to use heroin.

That wasn’t the first time that candidate Paul had talked about heroin use. During the Republican presidential debate in South Carolina back in May, Fox’s Chris Wallace brought up the subject of Paul’s belief that the federal government should stay out of people’s personal habits. He then specifically mentioned the legalization of drugs and then bluntly asked Paul, “Are you suggesting that heroin and prostitution are an exercise of liberty?” Paul said “Yes,” and then made the case that Americans don’t need government prohibitions against heroin to keep them from using heroin.

Although Paul is correct in emphasizing that the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to regulate the personal habits of Americans, whenever he talks about the drug war he ultimately focuses on how the decision to use or not use drugs is a matter of individual liberty and personal freedom.

He is simply expressing the libertarian view of the drug war. Although using hallucinogenic drugs may be immoral, sinful, unhealthy, destructive, a waste of money, a dumb thing to do, or all of the above, in a free society people must have the freedom to use or abuse drugs for freedom’s sake.

The libertarian view is simple and consistent: Since it is not the business of government to prohibit, regulate, restrict, license, limit, or otherwise control what someone wants to smoke, snort, sniff, inject, or swallow, then there should be no laws whatever regarding the buying, selling, possessing, using, growing, processing, or manufacturing of any drug for any reason. Therefore, not only marijuana, but all drugs should be decriminalized — immediately; all drug laws should be repealed — immediately; and all those imprisoned solely for drug crimes should be released — immediately.

Although there is a place for practical or utilitarian arguments about how the war on drugs has unnecessarily made criminals out of too many otherwise law-abiding Americans, clogged the judicial system, and expanded the prison population, and how it has cost the taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars with no substantial benefits to show for it, increased the size and scope of government, and violated the financial privacy and civil liberties of people who did not use or traffick in drugs, the libertarian view of the drug war is ultimately a moral or philosophical one.

The opposite view of the drug war is that of prohibition. Although there is still a Prohibition Party in the United States and a candidate for president from the party every four years who runs on a platform of bringing back alcohol prohibition, most Americans — even those who are strictly religious or who don’t drink alcohol — recoil from the thought of turning back the clock to the Prohibition era. Yet, the same people see nothing inconsistent about the prohibition of drugs.

It doesn’t matter what their political persuasion, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, and Republicans all generally support prohibition when it comes to drugs. Although some may argue that using drugs is immoral and others may argue that using drugs is destructive to one’s health, their arguments are really the same: Instead of individuals deciding on whether to use drugs, it is the state — in collusion with legislators, regulators, nanny statists, drug warriors, paternalists, bureaucrats, and busybodies — that decides which drugs should be legal for use.

But a supposed moral and healthy society is not necessarily a free society. In a free society the individual makes his own decisions about his health and lifestyle; in an authoritarian society the state thinks it know best how to make those decisions. In a free society the individual is free to make bad decisions; in an authoritarian society the state thinks it knows best what decisions people should make. In a free society the individual person is responsible for the consequences of his actions; in an authoritarian society the state thinks it knows best what actions people should take.

In between the libertarian view of the drug war (freedom) and the prohibitionist view of the drug war (tyranny) is a confusing mass of inconsistency, hypocrisy, and nonsense.

There is no disputing that the war on drugs has utterly failed. It has failed to prevent drug abuse and drug overdoses. It has failed to keep drugs out of the hands of addicts and teenagers. It has failed to reduce drug trafficking and violence. It has failed to reduce drug use and the demand for drugs. It has failed to respect natural rights and civil liberties. It has failed to be practical and cost effective.

But in spite of recognizing some of the drug war’s shortcomings, advocates of a “third way” when it comes to the drug war still believe in some kind of a nanny state to monitor the behavior of its citizens. They are really just partial prohibitionists.

Some want the drug war to be better managed. Others want to focus on drug traffickers instead of drug users. Some want to legalize medical marijuana, but not all marijuana. Others want to decriminalize marijuana use, but not cocaine use. Some want to legalize certain drugs, but only so they can be taxed. Others want to legalize certain drugs, but only if they are regulated by the government.

Individual liberty and personal freedom are the farthest things from the minds of these partial prohibitionists.

Libertarians, as well as civil libertarians and strict constitutionalists who share the libertarian view on the drug war, must remain diligent and uncompromising in defense of absolute drug freedom. Constitutional, practical, utilitarian, emotional, medical, empirical, and common-sense arguments for drug freedom, although they have a time and a place, must always yield to the moral and philosophical ones. That is not to say that partial drug freedom is not preferable to outright prohibition or that steps toward drug freedom — such as decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana — are bad ideas. But it should never be forgotten that all people everywhere have the natural, moral, and civil right to buy, sell, grow, manufacture, or ingest whatever substance they choose for whatever reason they choose, including — are you listening Jon Stewart and Chris Wallace? — heroin.

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