Time to Wind Down the War on Drugs

3 12 2009

by Gene Healy

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.

Added to cato.org on December 1, 2009

This article appeared in the DC Examiner on December 1, 2009.

It’s hard out here for a libertarian in the Age of Obama. From bailout mania to the drive to nationalize health care, those of who want less federal involvement in American life have plenty to be depressed about.

Is there any area in which it’s not too audacious to hope for less intrusive government?

Yes, thankfully: Today, more and more Americans are open to winding down our destructive war on drugs.

In October, Gallup recorded its highest-ever level of public support for marijuana legalization, with 44 percent of Americans in favor. There’s “a generational rift” on the issue, Gallup reports: A majority of voters under 50 back legalization.

Our prohibitionist policies have filled America’s jails to bursting, and made our streets less safe by funneling some $40 billion a year to organized crime.

This Election Day, Maine joined a growing number of states that have legalized medical marijuana dispensaries. Meanwhile, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for a “robust debate” on the issue, and activists are on pace to put a marijuana decriminalization initiative in front of the state’s voters.

In Congress, unlikely allies Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Barney Frank, D-Mass., recently introduced a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Most encouraging, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., has called attention to the scandalous fact that the United States has more people in jail per capita than any other nation in the world, in large part because of the drug war.

At the state level, nearly 60 percent of those serving time for drugs have “no history of violence or significant selling activity,” Webb notes.

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, and nearly a quarter of the worlds prisoners — more per capita than authoritarian regimes like Iran, China and Russia. We probably shouldn’t take official Chinese prison stats at face value, but is there really good reason for the United States to imprison people at six times the rate Canada does?

As Webb puts it, “Either we are home to the most evil people on Earth,” or we’re doing something wrong.

Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act would set up a bipartisan commission to, among other things, “restructure the approach to criminalization of, and incarceration as a result of the possession or use of illegal drugs.”

“Distrust of government’s interference in people’s lives” is supposed to be a key GOP principle, according to the 2008 party platform. But too many Republicans abandon it when it comes to the drug war.

After Webb introduced his bill, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, pushed an amendment that would prohibit the commission from recommending or even studying drug decriminalization. “I filed this amendment in an effort to start a debate on this important issue,” Grassley later explained. If you say so, senator.

And when Obama’s Justice Department announced it would no longer prosecute medical marijuana users in states that have legalized the practice, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, complained that the administration was “tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the United States.”

Maybe so. But so what?

Pot is less harmful than alcohol, as shown by government-commissioned studies, including a 1999 report by the Institute for Medicine and the 1972 Shafer Commission, set up by the Nixon administration, which ignored its recommendation that marijuana be decriminalized.

Any number of prominent pols have inhaled, including our last three presidents, and conservatives Newt Gingrich, Clarence Thomas, and presidential hopeful Sarah Palin. (Isn’t pot supposed to squelch ambition?) Yet we still arrest more than 700,000 people a year for marijuana possession.

Our prohibitionist policies have filled America’s jails to bursting, and made our streets less safe by funneling some $40 billion a year to organized crime. Drug warriors fear that decriminalization would make these problems worse. But recent evidence from Portugal refutes them.

In 2001, Portugal became the first — and so far, only — Western democracy to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. The results of that experiment are now in.

In a recent study for the Cato Institute, Glenn Greenwald reports that decriminalization has “had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal,” drug-related pathologies “have decreased dramatically,” and there’s little public support for recriminalization.

It may be some years yet before American public opinion is ready to follow Portugal’s lead, but the prospects for reform are better than they’ve been in decades.

Cato Institute • 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. • Washington D.C. 20001-5403
Phone (202) 842-0200 • Fax (202) 842-3490


It’s not often that I agree with the Cato Institute, but this is one of those times. Outside the economic sphere, liberalism and libertarianism have much in common.

— Nightman1




2 responses

20 12 2009
Bill Harris

One need not travel to China to find indigenous cultures lacking human rights. America leads the world in percentile behind bars, thanks to ongoing persecution of hippies, radicals, and non-whites under prosecution of the war on drugs. If we’re all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance global credibility.

The drug czar’s Rx for prison fodder costs dearly, as lives are flushed down expensive tubes. My shaman’s second opinion is that psychoactive plants are God’s gift. Behold, it’s all good. When Eve ate the apple, she knew a good apple, and an evil prohibition. Canadian Marc Emery is being extradited to prison for selling seeds that American farmers use to reduce U. S. demand for Mexican pot.

Only on the authority of a clause about interstate commerce does the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) reincarnate Al Capone, endanger homeland security, and throw good money after bad. Administration fiscal policy burns tax dollars to root out the number-one cash crop in the land, instead of taxing sales. Society rejected the plague of prohibition, but it mutated. Apparently, SWAT teams don’t need no stinking amendment.

Nixon passed the CSA on the false assurance that the Schafer Commission would later justify criminalizing his enemies. No amendments can assure due process under an anti-science law without due process itself. Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until the CSA shut down research, and pronounced that marijuana has no medical use, period. Drug juries exclude bleeding hearts.

The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote, which functions like LSD. Americans shouldn’t need a specific church membership or an act of Congress to obtain their birthright freedom of religion. John Doe’s free exercise of religious liberty may include entheogen sacraments to mediate communion with his maker.

Freedom of speech presupposes freedom of thought. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate any governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Mayflower sailed to escape coerced conformity. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.

Common-law must hold that adults are the legal owners of their own bodies. The Founding Fathers undersigned that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable. Socrates said to know your self. Mortal lawmakers should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors. Persons who appreciate their own free choice of path in life should tolerate seekers’ self-exploration.

20 12 2009

Wow. Someone who gets as emphatic about this as I do!

Thank you for your comment. It must be bitter indeed to know that there is something out there, in this case peyote and perhaps similar drugs–that could tell you a lot about the world–but your government will not allow you access to it…

And for no good reason, really!

I think I know the deep sociological reason for the country’s odd behavior. See my next post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: