According to a new report released by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, every 25 seconds in the United States someone is arrested for drug possession.
It is not surprising to read in the report that
- Police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime.
- Police made more arrests for simple marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined.
- Four times as many people are arrested for possessing drugs as are arrested for selling them.
A few years ago, the ACLU estimated that “the annual fiscal cost of marijuana possession enforcement in the United States was $3.614 billion for police, judicial and legal, and corrections expenditures and that an average misdemeanor arrest cost, at minimum, between $1,000 and $2,000.” And that was just for marijuana. God only knows the total cost when all drugs are included. It has certainly not gone down.
The human cost of the drug war is even more staggering: “As a result of these arrests, on any given day at least 137,000 men and women are behind bars in the United States for drug possession, some 48,000 of them in state prisons and 89,000 in jails, most of the latter in pretrial detention.” The result of all of this is crippling debt from court-imposed fines and fees, separation from family and jobs, and criminal records that lock people out of jobs, housing, education, public assistance, and voting.
I have maintained for years now in all of my articles on the drug war that it is a monstrous evil that has ruined more lives than drugs themselves and that the costs of drug prohibition far outweigh any possible benefits. The latest excuse for the drug war has not changed my mind.
The latest excuse for the drug war is the scourge of fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain medication. It is said to be nearly 50 times as potent as heroin and to have about 80 times the potency of morphine. The substance was first synthesized in 1960. By 2012, it was the most widely used synthetic opioid in medicine.
Although some deaths have resulted from the improper medical use of fentanyl, it is the recreational use of the drug that has many people concerned because of the increasing number of overdose deaths each year in recent years. Twelve different analogues (compounds that resemble one another in structure) of fentanyl have been identified, each of which may be hundreds of times more potent than street heroin. Fentanyl can be used orally, smoked, snorted, or injected.
Fentanyl isn’t just more powerful than heroin; it is cheaper and easier to produce, since it is made from chemicals instead of poppies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently “warned about the growing risk of overdose and death from a ‘widening array of toxic fentanyl-related compounds being mixed with heroin or sold as heroin,’ often without buyers’ knowledge.” According the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, “Nationwide, 13,882 drug seizures tested positive for fentanyl in 2015, more than double the 2014 number.”
But it is not just urban areas that have felt the scourge of fentanyl. Even small towns in the upper Midwest have been hit hard. In the twin towns of Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota (separated by a small bay at the end of Lake Superior), the drug business “is seriously taxing local law enforcement.” Police working for a tri-county task force intercepted 64.5 grams of fentanyl in the third quarter of this year, up from 12 grams in the second quarter. Duluth and Superior police are making several trafficking arrests a week. Police recently discovered “46 grams of a substance containing fentanyl stashed inside a Red Bull 12-pack box in the trunk of a car that had been driven up from Chicago.” “It’s hard to imagine how it could have gotten worse than the heroin we were dealing with,” says Brad Schimel, Wisconsin’s attorney general. But “fentanyl has taken this to a new level.”
Although 24 states have legalized the medical use of marijuana, 18 states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and 4 states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, Americans who support the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana do not necessarily likewise support the decriminalization or legalization of “hard” drugs. Even the Libertarian Party candidate for president doesn’t go that far.
The libertarian position on the drug war and drug use has nothing to do with how potent, addictive, or potentially deadly a particular drug is. The libertarian position has nothing to do with how medically beneficial or harmful certain drugs may or may not be. The libertarian position has nothing to do with how the government classifies drugs on a schedule. And the libertarian position has nothing to do with whether specific drugs would be cheaper, more readily available, or more widely used should they be decriminalized or legalized.
There are no valid excuses for the drug war and no reasonable exceptions that can be entertained.
The libertarian position on the drug war and drug use is simple and consistent: Since it is not the business of government to prohibit, regulate, restrict, license, limit, or otherwise control what someone wants to eat, drink, smoke, absorb, inhale, snort, sniff, inject, swallow, or otherwise ingest into his mouth, nose, veins, or lungs, there should be no laws whatsoever regarding the buying, selling, possessing, using, growing, processing, manufacturing, transporting, or “trafficking” of any drug for any reason. Therefore, all drugs should be legalized, the war on drugs should be ended, all drug laws should be repealed, the Drug Enforcement Agency should be abolished, and all those imprisoned solely for drug crimes should be released. That can and should be done immediately.
That doesn’t mean that drugs are not unsafe, unhealthy, harmful, dangerous, or addictive. It doesn’t mean that using drugs is not bad, sinful, immoral, risky, or self-destructive. It just means that adults should be able to weigh the pros and cons of drug use and make their own decisions whether they will use (or abuse) drugs — and be accountable for their actions.
The report on the drug war issued by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union falls short in one respect. It doesn’t call for the full legalization of all drugs or even marijuana. It instead calls
on all states and the federal government to decriminalize the use and possession for personal use of all drugs and to focus instead on prevention and harm reduction. Until decriminalization has been achieved, we urge officials to take strong measures to minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of existing laws and policies.
That is certainly preferable to the current situation, but absolute drug freedom should always be stated as the ultimate goal.