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The Bipartisan Drug Warp


President Clinton promised recently to cut drug use by 50 percent over the next 10 years with the more than $17 billion–nearly a 7 percent increase–he’s asked from Congress. Predictably, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the effort isn’t enough.

Those who hate partisan bickering might take comfort that each party has tried to best the other in making absurd proposals about ending drug use. But those who understand the real nature of the drug war take no comfort at all. Bipartisan foolishness is something less than inspiring.

Clinton wants to spend those billions on the border patrol; child and prisoner education; and medical research, the Drug Enforcement Administration, drug testing, and intervention south of the border and in the Caribbean. That will be $17 billion more down the bottomless money pit, right behind many previous billions wasted throughout this sordid war on drugs.

What comes from the Republican majority? More nonsense. Gingrich criticized Clinton for allowing drug use to rise 70 percent since the president took office. He scoffed that the War between the States was won in just four years. “This president would have us believe that with all of the resources, ingenuity, dedication and passion of the American people, we can’t even get halfway to victory in the war on drugs until the year 2007,” Gingrich said.

The GOP wants to use the taxpayers money to “help” communities and parents fight drug use, provide so-called market incentives to employers to keep drugs out of the workplace, and set up a national antidrug-information clearinghouse. That’s the “small government” party for you.

Politicians never get sillier than when they talk about drugs. All such noise about ending drug use is patently ridiculous. The amount of drug use has little to with anything that government does. In fact, if a government crackdown causes the price and profits to rise, more people will be attracted to the drug trade. People have their own reasons for taking drugs. If they don’t want them, it doesn’t matter how accessible drugs are. On the other hand, if people do want drugs, they will go to great lengths to get them. Government is quite irrelevant.

Americans, of all people, should be deeply suspicious of this war on drugs, which, as social critic Thomas Szasz points out, is actually a war on people using and selling culturally cursed substances such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. (Users of alcohol do not get the same rough treatment.) In fighting that war, the government shows its ugliest face: it confiscates cars, cash, and homes from people not even charged with crimes; entraps citizens; and uses informers to spy on them. As a direct result of its war, the police and courts are corrupted, the cities are bedlam, and children are enticed by black-market prices into the trade, where sampling the merchandise is almost assured.

In other words, the war has brought about evils that never could be matched by drug use alone. Before 1917 there were no laws against drugs – and there was no drug problem. The drug warriors will say that it’s a different world now. Yes it is – and the drug laws are partly responsible for that.

Are we to do nothing about drugs? It depends on the “we.” The government should do nothing but deal with people who use physical force against other people. Being under the influence of drugs would be no excuse. The rest of us should be free to live the peaceful lives we wish to lead. That would include teaching our children self-responsibility and ambitiousness, two things typically lacking in people who wreck their lives with drugs. Property owners should be free to exclude – discriminate against – drug users and sellers. (Fully private communities likely to have far less of a drug problem than “public” communities.)

Beyond that, it is time we stopped demonizing drugs. They are inanimate substances. They do not leap out of the shadows into our bloodstreams. People choose to take drugs; and people who value their lives do not waste them on drugs or anything else. Government, which daily treats human beings callously, is precisely the wrong institution to entrust with teaching anyone the value of life.

In the name of life and decency, let’s end the war on drug users forthwith.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, editor of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty (The Foundation for Economic Education), and author of Separating School & State: How to Liberate America’s Families (1995) and Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax (1998).

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.