There is no question that the war on drugs is a failure. In spite of decades of prohibition laws, threats of fines and/or imprisonments, and massive propaganda campaigns, drugs are available and affordable. The Mental Health Services Administration — a government agency — has reported that marijuana, ecstasy, and methamphetamine use has recently increased. The government’s GAO has even said that the D.A.R.E. program has had “no statistically significant long-term effect on preventing youth illicit drug use.”
There are, however, some things that the war on drugs has accomplished. It has drained $40 billion a year from the federal treasury. It has made criminals out of hundreds of thousands of Americans (754,224 Americans were arrested for marijuana possession in 2008). It has destroyed financial privacy. It has unnecessarily swelled prison populations (over half of the federal prison population is because of drug charges). It has turned America’s inner cities into war zones. It has greatly eroded civil liberties. It has corrupted law enforcement. It has ruined more lives than drugs themselves.
The war on drugs enjoys wide bipartisan support on both the federal and state levels. Sure, some states have relaxed marijuana laws and made marijuana legal for medical use, but always under the watchful eye of state regulators and tax authorities.
But in these days of budget crises, on both the federal and state levels, the war on drugs is expanding. The latest addition to the list of controlled substances will be bath salts.
White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has issued a bath salt alarm because the synthetic stimulants mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) are being sold as bath salts. It turns out that instead of using these bath salts in the bathtub, people have taken to swallowing, snorting, injecting, smoking, and otherwise ingesting them.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) plans to introduce legislation to ban these drugs disguised as bath salts as federally controlled substances. “The longer we wait to ban the substances, the greater risk we put our kids in,” said Schumer.
Several states have already banned or are considering legislation to ban the dreaded bath salts. In my state of Florida, the attorney general, Pam Bondi, has banned them for ninety days of her own accord because the Florida attorney general has the power to temporarily ban a substance if it is found to be an immediate threat to consumers. It will now be a third degree felony to sell products containing MDVP. According to Bondi, energized bath salt is “right up there with cocaine and heroin.” She claims that MDVP makes you “think you’re seeing monsters and it also makes you think that you can fly, and there are a lot of balconies out there for spring break.” Health effects supposedly include increased heart rate, nosebleeds, hallucinations, severe paranoia, seizures, and kidney failure. Florida Senate president Mike Haridopolis says that Florida legislators would work to ban the substance this spring. That is a mouthful coming from a man who claims he “has stood up for Floridians against more government.”
The issue here is not how high one might get from the use of these bath salts, how many monsters one might see, how many ways a person might damage his health, how easy it might be to purchase the bath salts, how cheap it might be to infuse the bath salts with the stimulants, how many spring breakers in Florida might jump off hotel balconies, or even if one sniff of bath salts might kill you.
The case against the banning or regulating of narcotic bath salts is the same as the case against banning or regulating marijuana, crack cocaine, or crystal meth.
First of all, the federal government has no constitutional authority to ban or regulate drugs. Drug warriors may wish that it did, but no amount of wishing, desiring, or wanting the federal government to have that power can override the Constitution.
Two, government in general should not have the authority, constitutional or otherwise, to ban or regulate drugs. Period. The reason for the government intervention, whether it be for public health, child safety, moral sensibilities, or community standards, is irrelevant. It is just not the business of government to intervene in this fashion.
Three, to be consistent, government at all levels should, and drug warriors should support, the banning of alcohol and tobacco since they are two of the leading causes of death in the United States. It is the height of hypocrisy to call for drug prohibition and not the prohibition of other harmful substances.
Four, recreational drugs are far less likely to kill you than physician-prescribed drugs. According to some articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association, over 100,000 people die every year from drugs prescribed and administered by physicians. Over two million Americans a year have in-hospital adverse drug reactions. The war on drugs is completely misdirected.
Five, drug prohibition and regulation are incompatible with private property, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free markets. Indeed, drug prohibition and regulation are anathema to a free society. The war on drugs is a war on liberty.
The libertarian case for drug freedom is consistently straightforward: There should be no laws at any level of government for any reason regarding the buying, selling, growing, processing, manufacturing, advertising, use, or possession of any drug for any reason.
This does not mean that libertarians advocate the use of hallucinogenic drugs. This does not mean that libertarians don’t think that employers could require that their employees not use drugs. This does not mean that libertarians don’t think that parents have the right to forbid their children from using drugs. This does not mean that libertarians don’t think that using drugs could be harmful to one’s health. This does not mean that libertarians don’t think that getting stoned is immoral. This does not mean that libertarians don’t care if someone has a drug problem.
The real issue is not even about drugs.
It is just not the business of government to ban or regulate what someone decides to put into his mouth, nose, or veins. It doesn’t matter if it’s immoral, unhealthy, sinful, hazardous, stupid, disgusting, or death inducing. The legislators and bureaucrats who make the decisions to ban or not to ban and to regulate or not to regulate are not parents, nannies, doctors, priests, psychologists, guards, monitors, or gods — or are they?
Once you elevate government to such a level that you allow it to determine what you can and can’t ingest or regulate the circumstances under which you can lawfully ingest something, there is no stopping its reach, as Ludwig von Mises explained over fifty years ago:
If it is true that government derives its authority from God and is entrusted by Providence to act as the guardian of the ignorant and stupid populace, then it is certainly its task to regiment every aspect of the subject’s conduct. The God-sent ruler knows better what is good for his wards than they do themselves. It is his duty to guard them against the harm they would inflict upon themselves if left alone.
Although the war on drugs doesn’t need to be expanded, it likewise doesn’t need to be scaled back, made more consistent, made more effective, or made more efficient. For the sake of freedom, it needs to be ended — completely, quickly, and permanently.