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The Root of Support for the Drug War


Although many states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, some states have decriminalized the possession of certain amounts of marijuana, and four states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, bipartisan support for the drug war throughout the United States continues unabated and unquestioned.


Why do so many Americans think that the property of other Americans should be confiscated, and that some of their fellow Americans should be fined, arrested, put on probation, subject to no-knock SWAT team raids, be treated as criminals, or locked in a cage for growing, manufacturing, processing, buying, selling, distributing, “trafficking in,” using, or possessing some substance the government doesn’t approve of?

Why do so many Americans support a war on drugs that

  • unnecessarily makes criminals out of otherwise law-abiding Americans, clogs the judicial system with noncrimes, and expands the prison population with nonviolent offenders;
  • violates the Constitution, the principle of federalism, and increases the size and scope of government;
  • has utterly failed to prevent drug use, reduce drug abuse, or end drug overdoses;
  • fosters violence, corrupts law enforcement, and militarizes the police;
  • hinders legitimate pain management, hampers the treatment of debilitating diseases, and turns doctors into criminals;
  • destroys personal and financial privacy, and negates personal responsibility and accountability;
  • has been unsuccessful in keeping drugs out of the hands of addicts, teenagers, and convicts;
  • assaults individual liberty, private property, and the free market; or
  • wastes billions of taxpayer dollars and has financial and human costs that far exceed any of its supposed benefits?

I see a number of reasons that Americans in general support a government war on the mind-altering and mood-altering substances we refer to as drugs.

For some the reason is history. As far as many Americans are concerned, drugs have always been illegal and should therefore always remain so. It is simply unthinkable that it should be any other way. Yet, for the first half of our nation’s history there were no prohibitions against anyone’s possessing or using any drug.

For some the reason is society. The use of marijuana — for medical reasons or not — is still viewed negatively. And of course the use of other drugs such as cocaine, LSD, and heroin is disparaged even more. There is almost universal support for the drug war among all facets of society: engineers, teachers, preachers, physicians, clerks, accountants, secretaries, and housewives. But, of course, it doesn’t follow that because a majority of society supports something the power of government should be used against those who don’t.

For some the reason is political. The war on drugs enjoys widespread bipartisan support. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, moderates, populists, progressives, centrists, Tea Partiers — they all generally support government prohibition of certain drugs. The drug war is never an issue in any congressional primary or general election. As long as their party or their political group supports the drug war, most Americans will follow suit. The decision to use drugs should be an ethical, religious, medical, or moral decision, not a political decision.

For some the reason is religion. Support for the drug war can be found across the religious spectrum, encompassing Christians and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, liberals and conservatives, fundamentalists and progressives, and Trinitarians and Unitarians. Yet, there is no ethical precept in any religion that should lead anyone to believe that it is the job of government to prohibit, prevent, regulate, restrict, or otherwise control any substance that any adult desires to ingest of his own free will.

For some the reason is morality. Because, some assert, it is immoral to alter one’s mind or mood with illegal drugs, the government should ban the use of these substances. Do drug warriors likewise believe that it is immoral to alter one’s mind or mood with alcohol? If not, then they are woefully inconsistent in their proscription; if so, then they are woefully inconsistent in their prescription.

Dangers and vices

For some the reason is safety. Because it can be dangerous to use illicit drugs, some think the government should ban them. Yet there is no question that smoking marijuana is less dangerous than drinking alcohol. Alcohol abuse is a factor in many drownings; home, pedestrian, car, and boating accidents; and fires. How many drug warriors propose that the government ban alcohol? There are plenty of things that are much more dangerous than using illicit drugs: skydiving, bungee jumping, coal mining, boxing, mountain climbing, cliff diving, drag racing — even crossing the street at a busy intersection. According to the Journal of Forensic Sciences, there are more than 28,000 chainsaw-related injuries annually in the United States. Shouldn’t governments across the country declare war on chainsaws?

For some the reason is vice. Using drugs is said to be a vice like gambling, profanity, drunkenness, using pornography, and prostitution. But as only the latter is actually banned outright by the government, arguments for government action against select drugs are extremely weak. And what about the vices of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust? Why don’t drug warriors advocate government action against them? Vices in 2014 are still as the 19th-century political philosopher Lysander Spooner explained:

Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.

For some the reason is health. The use of mind-altering and mood-altering substances is said to be unhealthy. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” But even if drugs such as marijuana don’t provide benefits for certain diseases and medical conditions, they are certainly not nearly as deadly as the drugs administered by physicians that kill thousands of Americans every year, the drugs that cause thousands of hospital patients every year to have adverse reactions, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin that kill thousands every year. The most unhealthy drug is alcohol, which is a contributing factor in many cases of cancer, mental illness, fetal abnormalities, and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of premature deaths in the United States. There is no question that smoking marijuana is less dangerous than smoking tobacco. Common sense would dictate that it is tobacco that should be banned, not marijuana. And of course, the greatest health threat Americans face is obesity, not illegal drugs.

For some the reason is addiction. Certain drugs should be illegal, we are told, because they are addictive. The federal government says that marijuana “has a high potential for abuse.” But is that because it is addictive or because some people just want to get high? Legal drugs prescribed by physicians are certainly just as addictive as any drugs that are illegal. And of course, pornography, smoking, gambling, sex, shopping, and eating can be addictive. Drug warriors are very selective about which addictive behaviors deserve government action.

For some the reason is irrationality. Although every bad thing that could be said about drugs could also be said about alcohol, some drug warriors hold the irrational belief that drugs are just different from alcohol. Why? Because they just are.

For all, the reason is government. I believe the root of support for the drug war is simply this: trust in government. Unnecessary, irrational, and naive trust in government.

What’s so disturbing is that nowhere does the Constitution authorize the federal government to intrude itself into the personal eating, drinking, or smoking habits of Americans or concern itself with the nature and quantity of any substance Americans want to ingest. The Constitution is supposed to be the foundation of American government. The federal government is not supposed to have the authority to do anything unless it is included in the limited, enumerated powers granted to it in the Constitution. Yet some of the ardent enthusiasts of the Constitution are some of the most rabid drug warriors.

The war on drugs is a war on individual liberty, private property, limited government, the Constitution, American taxpayers, personal responsibility, the free market, and a free society that has ruined more lives than drugs themselves.

Every facet of government that contributes in some way to the monstrous evil that is the war on drugs should be dismembered, root and branch, and cast to the four winds.

This article was originally published in the January 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.

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