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The War on Drugs Is Senseless

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The war on drugs is a failure. It has failed to prevent drug abuse. It has failed to keep drugs out of the hands of addicts. It has failed to keep drugs away from teenagers. It has failed to reduce the demand for drugs. It has failed to stop the violence associated with drug trafficking. It has failed to help drug addicts get treatment.

But the war on drugs has also succeeded. It has succeeded in clogging the judicial system. It has succeeded in swelling prison populations. It has succeeded in corrupting law enforcement. It has succeeded in destroying financial privacy. It has succeeded in militarizing the police. It has succeeded in hindering legitimate pain treatment. It has succeeded in destroying the Fourth Amendment. It has succeeded in eroding civil liberties. It has succeeded in making criminals out of hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Americans. It has succeeded in wasting hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. It has succeeded in ruining countless lives.

Clearly, the financial and human costs of the drug war far exceed any of its supposed benefits. Clearly, the drug war violates the Constitution and exceeds the proper role of government. And clearly, the drug war is a war on personal freedom, private property, personal responsibility, individual liberty, personal and financial privacy, and the free market.

But the war on drugs is also something else. It is the most senseless of the government’s wars.

The Food and Drug Administration recently released nine new warning labels that will soon be appearing on packs of cigarettes. The new graphic labels will replace the four familiar and smaller text warnings that have appeared on cigarette packages for the past 25 years.

The United States was the first country to require health warnings on packs of cigarettes.

The original warning label, appearing on cigarette packs from 1966 to 1970, was “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.” It was replaced from 1970 to 1985 with “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health.”

Since 1985, cigarette packs have contained one of four surgeon-general’s warnings:

  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.
  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.
  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight.
  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide.

The new labels, which cigarette makers must begin using by the fall of 2012, will take up the top half on both sides of a pack of cigarettes.

The images appearing with the warnings will show rotting teeth and gums, a man with a tracheotomy smoking, diseased lungs, the corpse of a smoker, a mother holding her baby with smoke swirling around them, a premature baby, a woman crying, someone breathing with an oxygen mask, and an ex-smoker wearing an “I Quit” T-shirt.

The gruesome graphics are accompanied by one of the following text warnings:

  • Smoking can kill you.
  • Cigarettes cause cancer.
  • Cigarettes cause strokes and heart disease.
  • Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease.
  • Cigarettes are addictive.
  • Tobacco smoke can harm your children.
  • Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers.
  • Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.
  • Smoking during pregnancy can harm your baby.

Each label also includes a national “quit-smoking” hotline number (1‑800‑QUIT‑NOW).

The new labels are the result of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (PL 111-31). This legislation passed the Senate on June 11, 2009, by a vote of 79-17. It passed the House on June 12, 2009, by a vote of 307- 97. There were 22 Republicans in the Senate and 70 in the House that supported this nanny-state legislation that gave the FDA the legal authority to regulate tobacco. Thanks, “free-market, less-government” Republicans.

The new labels “are frank, honest and powerful depictions of the health risks of smoking,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The FDA says the introduction of the new warnings “is expected to have a significant public health impact by decreasing the number of smokers, resulting in lives saved, increased life expectancy, and lower medical costs.”

Health advocacy groups praised the new labels as well. American Cancer Society CEO John R. Seffrin issued a statement saying that the labels have the potential to “encourage adults to give up their deadly addiction to cigarettes and deter children from starting in the first place.”

Figures vary, but tobacco use is supposed to cost the U.S. economy nearly $200 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity and causes more than 440,000 premature deaths each year from heart disease, stroke, cancer, or smoking-related diseases.

So what does all that have to do with the war on drugs? It looks like the government has a war on tobacco as well. True, but there are some important differences.

One, smoking cigarettes is still legal. Anyone can buy as many cigarettes as he wants and smoke as many as he wants without fear that government at any level will hinder him from doing so. He may not have the freedom to smoke in a bar or restaurant, but that is another topic for another article.

Two, in spite of its warning labels and anti-smoking campaigns, the federal government doesn’t really want all smokers to quit lighting up. The government needs the revenue it gets from taxing tobacco. There is currently a federal excise tax of $1.01 per pack on regular “class A” cigarettes. Larger “Class B” cigarettes are taxed twice as much. And then there are the taxes on cigars, chewing tobacco, snuff, pipe tobacco, loose cigarette tobacco, and rolling papers. (States and some localities also tax tobacco products).

Three, and what really shows the senselessness of the war on drugs, smoking tobacco is actually very bad for your health. Although I oppose the government’s war on tobacco as much as I oppose the government’s war on drugs, that doesn’t change the fact that using tobacco is harmful and a major contributor to the major causes of death in the United States (heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic respiratory diseases).

If the federal government is going to make a harmful substance illegal, then it seems logical that that substance should be tobacco. It is the cultivation, processing, sale, and use of tobacco that should be illicit, not marijuana. The number of deaths attributable every year to marijuana smoking is a big fat zero. And marijuana does have some known health benefits. If smoking cigarettes causes cancer; causes strokes and heart disease; causes fatal lung disease; is addictive; harms fetuses, children, and nonsmokers; poses serious risks to your health; and kills you, then it only makes sense to criminalize tobacco instead of marijuana.

But what about other illicit drugs such as LSD, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine? There is no question that deaths have occurred from the use of those drugs. But more than 100,000 people die every year from drugs prescribed and administered by physicians. And more than two million Americans a year have in-hospital adverse drug reactions. Thousands of people die every year from reactions to aspirin.

In my state of Florida, the Orlando Sentinel just reported on July 6, 2011, that, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “fatal prescription-drug overdoses jumped by 61 percent in Florida from 2003 to 2009 and claimed 16,500 lives.” The prescription-drug overdose death rate was up 61 percent. The prescription-drug death rate was up 84.2 percent. The Oxycodone death rate was up 265 percent. The Xanax death rate was up 234 percent. Yet, the illegal-drugs death rate was down 21 percent to 3.4 deaths per 100,000 Floridians.

The number of annual deaths caused by all drugs — legal and illegal — pales in comparison with deaths caused by tobacco. And likewise the costs to society and the economy. If smoking tobacco is as bad as the government says it is, then it only makes sense to ban the cultivation, processing, sale, and use of tobacco, and to do so immediately. It is tobacco traffickers who should be sentenced to long prison terms. It is tobacco dealers who should be arrested and whose lives should be ruined. It is tobacco peddlers who should be fined and scorned. It is tobacco users whose property should be confiscated.

Now, lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not in favor of any government at any level banning tobacco. That is because I am not in favor of any government at any level banning the buying, selling, growing, processing, use, or possession of any substance. And that is because, as a libertarian, I believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility instead of a nanny state run by bureaucrats looking out for my health and safety.

The war on drugs is senseless, just as a war on any other substance would be.

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