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The War on Drugs Rots America


President Clinton may have found a legacy, and the Republicans in Congress are backing him. His legacy? Taking the United States into the civil war raging in Colombia by an injection of $1.3 billion in money and military equipment, including combat helicopters, not to mention hundreds of American pilots and “advisors.” And why is he doing that? Because, he and his GOP allies say, it is necessary to prosecute our domestic War on Drugs.

Such is the logic of the War on Drugs-which is really a war against people. It’s another reason to dump that policy forthwith.

Colombia is the scene of continuing violence involving the government, so-called left-wing guerillas, and so-called right-wing militias. Peasants, meanwhile, can make a living growing coca, which is turned into cocaine for the American market. (Eighty percent of American cocaine originates in Colombia.) The U.S. government wants to stop the peasants from growing coca on the curious ground that the demand on American streets will dry up if the Colombian supply vanishes. (We’ll deal with this argument soon.) The guerillas protect poor coca growers in return for money, which finances their activities, which in turn stimulates activity by the militias, which profit from drugs through their ties to wealthy coca growers. The militias work with the regular army, which will never win an award for respecting individual rights.

According to The Observer , the “emergency” pork-barrel-laden bill passed by Congress also included money to finance the spraying of Colombia’s coca crops with the deadly herbicide Fusarium EN-4, which the newspaper reports is used to make chemical weapons, will harm plants other than coca, and could eventually sicken some human beings. You see, as the Bolsheviks used to say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

“Colombia is the heart of the drug war, and we’d better get on with it,” said GOP Sen. Paul Coverdell. “If we lose in Colombia, then we lose everywhere.”

That’s the public line being put out by the president and his Republican allies. But there is reason for skepticism because such strategies have failed countless times before. Anytime the United States has put pressure on farmers in one Latin America country, the drug traders have simply moved somewhere else. For that matter, wasn’t the end of the notorious Colombian drug cartels hailed just a few years ago? I guess they’re back.

No one should rule out that the drug war is just an excuse for the United States to help the Colombian government in its civil war. But that is no business of ours. Intervening there is certainly not authorized by the U.S. Constitution. No Colombian guerilla threatens the United States.

But some people will cling to the drug-war rationalization. By now, we should all see through that phony-baloney justification. As long as Americans want cocaine, someone will be willing to serve that market. It is sheer simple-mindedness to think that destroying the livelihood of Colombian farmers is going to end the cocaine trade. It’s drug prohibition and the resulting black market that make growing coca so lucrative in the first place.

When will we give up this idiotic crusade, which has not stopped drug use but has trashed the Constitution, corrupted the rule of law, violated our rights to be secure in our homes, destroyed our financial privacy, turned inner-city neighborhoods into war zones, and provided excuses for America to police the world?

Let’s get down to basics: people have to right to ingest anything they wish. What they don’t have a right to do is violate the rights of others-whether the perpetrators are intoxicated or not. The War on Drugs is premised on a fundamentally anti-American idea: that the government may tell us what we may and may not consume.

You and I may believe that using drugs is a stupid and self-destructive thing to do. That’s not the point. Either we are free or we are not. And in a free country people are left alone by the police until they violate someone else’s rights.

We just celebrated the Fourth of July. We waved flags, watched fireworks, and lauded liberty. It was all bogus. No one has the moral authority to talk about freedom until they renounce the War on Drugs.

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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.