John Hawkins of Right Wing News has an editorial in Human Events defending the war on drugs. I want to talk about a few of the arguments he makes:
Libertarians often attack the war on drugs as a waste of tax dollars and an infringement on personal liberties. That is misguided thinking that comes from trying to apply unworkable theoretical concepts in the real world.
At least libertarians have theoretical concepts, like freedom and personal responsibility.
By the way, nowhere in the rest of the article does he try to defend the drug war’s record of destroying our personal liberties.
For example, you often hear advocates of drug legalization say that we’re never going to win the war on drugs and that it would free up space in our prisons if we simply legalized drugs. While it’s true that we may not ever win the war against drugs — i.e. never entirely eradicate the use of illegal drugs — we’re not ever going to win the war against murder, robbery and rape either.
In a way, I agree with Hawkins here. I’ve never liked the argument that drugs should be legalized because they can never be eradicated, and for exactly this reason. In order for this argument to work, you have to argue that drug use is very much less evil than those other crimes. But if we could convince people of that, we probably wouldn’t need the rest of the argument.
Nevertheless, let me point out that while we may never eliminate robbery, rape, and murder, we can certainly police them more effectively than drug use for the simple reason that there will be cooperating witnesses. Robbery and rape victims—and the friends and families of murder victims—will complain to the police about these crimes and help them identify the bad guy.
That never happens with the sale, possession, and use of drugs because there’s no victim to complain. Violent crimes and property crimes have to be solved; drug crimes have to be discovered.
Since no one wants the police involved, they end up spying on people, searching cars and homes, monitoring financial transactions, bugging phones, and doing a bunch of other things that infringe on our personal freedoms.
But our moral code rejects each of them, so none — including drugs — can be legalized if we still adhere to that code.
Hawkins is pretty quick to whip out the first person plural there. Maybe his moral code rejects all four of those crimes, but our moral code does not. In particular, my moral code does not reject drug use, and neither do the moral codes of a lot of other good people.
Of course, the number of people using what are currently illegal drugs would skyrocket if they were legalized, so we’d see a new wave of drug-addled burglars if we “legalized it.”
I doubt it. Most of the end user’s high purchase price of illegal drugs is caused by the direct and indirect costs of drug smuggling. Drugs that don’t have to be smuggled are a lot cheaper, and their users don’t have to commit crimes to afford their habit. You don’t see many drunks breaking into homes to afford their next hit of booze.
But, some people may say, “so what if drug usage does explode? They’re not hurting anyone but themselves.” That might be true in a purely capitalistic society, but in the sort of welfare state that we have in this country, the rest of us would end up paying a significant share of the bills of people who don’t hold jobs or end up strung out in the hospital without jobs — and that’s even if you forget about the thugs who’d end up robbing our houses to get things to pawn to buy more drugs.
Man, he just doesn’t let up on that. It’s not as if this wasn’t a major part of the pro-legalization argument. Legalizing drugs will reduce the amount of drug-related crime because drugs will be a lot cheaper and people won’t need to live a life of crime to afford a drug habit.
For example, cocaine has some legal medical uses, so there’s a legal market. Last time I checked, the cost of medical cocaine was about 1/30th the cost of street cocaine. Who’s going to do burglaries to afford a drug habit when they can pay for it by panhandling?
There’s another crime-reducing effect as well: If other drugs have similar ratios of legal to illegal price, legalizing drugs could drain 97% of the revenue out of the street gangs and international drug smuggling operations. That should make things quieter in Columbia and on Chicago’s west side .
As for that bit about how the rest of us would be paying for drug users’ problems, I see his point, but where does that logic end? If we keep thinking that way, we’ll end up with a public health nanny state that tries to manage and control every aspect of human behavior that’s the least bit risky.
Even setting that aside, we make laws that prevent people from harming themselves all the time in our society. In many states there are helmet laws, laws that require us to wear seatbelts, laws against prostitution, and it’s even illegal to commit suicide. So banning harmful drugs is just par for the course.
Yeah, but have a sense of proportion. The first two crimes are just violations which are punished with small fines, and prostitution sentences are also very mild. As for suicide, are people ever really punished for that? I’m pretty sure the laws against suicide are only there as a justification to allow the government to restrain and evaluate suicidal people. None of those laws are enforced by multijurisdictional task forces that invade people’s homes in the middle of the night and sometimes shoot 92-year-old grandmothers.
And for the record, I oppose every single one of those laws on principle.
How many homeless people are drug addicts? How many women have had crack babies? How many people are in jail today because they got high and committed a crime? How many lives have been wrecked in some form or fashion by drug use? There’s probably not a person reading this column who doesn’t know someone who has faced terrible consequences in his life because of drug use.
Sure. I know a bunch of people who screwed up their lives, some with drugs, some with booze, and at least one with a vicious shopping habit.
Not one of them would have been better off if they’d also done time in prison.
That’s why once, way back when William Bennett was the drug czar, he responded like so to a caller on the Larry King show who told him that he should “behead the damn drug dealers.”
“I mean what the caller suggests is morally plausible,” he said. “Legally, it’s difficult. But somebody selling drugs to a kid? Morally, I don’t have any problem with that at all.”
Bennett was right then, he’s right now, and my guess is that most parents, upon finding out that someone was peddling drugs to their kid, would agree with him. Since that’s the case, do we really want the federal government to take over the role of a pusher and get our kids hooked on drugs to make a profit? No, we don’t.
Again, it’s like he’s never read anything about legalization. People who support legalizing drugs—or ending drug prohibition, to use our preferred terminology—want the currently illegal drugs to be regulated like alcohol or tobacco, both of which cannot legally be sold to children.
Finally, consider Hawkins’ turn of phrase about about us wanting “the federal government to take over the role of a pusher”. That raises the question: Take over from who? If we don’t want to take control of drug sales, then who are we going to leave in control? Who’s the pusher during our long-running war on drugs? Who’s selling drugs right now? Under our current drug war, who’s making the decisions about whether to sell drugs to our kids?
Update: T. F. Stern emailed me his objection to my assertions that legal drugs would be cheap drugs, and cheap drugs would mean less crime:
I agree, at least a little, that if the drugs which have to be smuggled in were legal the price would drop considerably. I would have to put a question mark on the second part. As a police officer on night shift I wish I had a nickel for every store front that got bashed in just for a couple of six packs of beer. Thousands of dollars in damage for a few dollars in beer made no sense to me but it happens all the time. Thieves are still going to steal regardless of the legality of the substance.
He would know; he used to be a police officer.