Reconsidering The Drug War

For most of my life, I have been a drug legalizer. I came to this conclusion while sitting at a campus lounge reading Adam Smith’s treatment of the English Corn Laws. It struck me at the time that if you replaced “corn” with “drugs” you have a nearly flawless argument against prohibition. It was the sort of revelation common when you’re that age. It seems so obvious, you assume you are super smart for having noticed it for the first time.

You get older and see that damage that comes from the drug trade and you start to understand it is more complicated than libertarians believe. In fact, the drug issue is the best way to understand why libertarians are hopeless. They cannot see the larger social issues involved in wide-scale drug taking. They think it is a free lunch, where legalization results in all good and no bad. Nothing in this world works that way.

Still, I have stuck with the idea of legalizing drugs.  The cost of locking up a million drug offenders is high. Layer on the courts, cops and social service stuff and the war on drugs probably costs us a hundred billion a year on the conservative side.  These guys say that’s a good number, but this site puts the number much higher.

Put a million people in jail at $50K a man and you get 50 billion. The basic numbers alone have always struck me as proof enough that the drug war is a scam and a failure. It’s not as if prohibition has worked. Drugs are everywhere, cheap and increasingly exotic. Even accepting there is a cost to legal drug use, it has always seemed to me that the scales tip in favor of legalizing as Milton Friedman argues here.

There is another argument, one I’ve often used against libertarians when I don’t feel like hearing them go on forever about weed. That is, people are all for legal drugs until Walmart has a sale on their extra special brand of heroine. That’s when the women start mobilizing for the children. All it will take is one mother hearing that ad and the days of legal drugs are about to come to an end. Drug legalization is an idea that appeals to men, not women.

Libertarians hate that argument, because it is true. Libertarians, like liberals, have an uncomfortable relationship with the human condition. Their view of the world works perfectly, so they don’t want to hear any of the inconvenient stuff, because they throws off their model of reality. Libertarians are like all materialist in that they can’t change their mind on anything, but they won’t change the subject either.

This piece by Peter Hitchens gets to the heart of the matter. What sort of society do you want to live in as a free man? Do you want one where drug addicts fill the parks and drunks fill the doorways? Or, do you want one where the drunks and drug addicts find it hard to be drunks and drug addicts? If it is the latter, then the question is not about how we legalize. The question is how we come up with better forms of prohibition.

In that regard, Hitchens is correct when he argues against addiction as a disease. This exchange is good stuff. Drug addiction is not a disease. You don’t choose to get cancer or have a high blood pressure. You may have a predisposition to drunkenness or addition, but you still have some control over your actions. Addicts get sober, because they learn how to control those urges. It may be genetic, but there is still some control.

The fact is, in a healthy vibrant society, this is not a debate that is necessary. Wide scale drug taking, legal or otherwise, is a symptom of a society in decline. That’s another thing libertarians cannot face, so they stick to making specious arguments about the benefits of legalizing weed. I think if given the choice, I’d rather fight to keep drugs illegal, as a defense against decline, rather than give up and go gently into the darkness.

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Turk Sylvester
Turk Sylvester
8 years ago

For the hard core drugs create facilities where users can enter freely, and are provided all the drugs they want (and maybe water). But not food. They can’t leave until they refrain from taking the drugs for 24 hours. Each time they take the drugs, the 24 hour clock resets.