Since 2009, I have written about ninety articles on the subject of the drug war, many of them for the Future of Freedom Foundation, and some of them for this very publication. I have maintained throughout these articles that the war on drugs is a monstrous evil that has ruined more lives than drugs themselves; that the war on drugs should be ended immediately; that all drugs should immediately be legalized; that everyone in prison solely on drug charges should be released immediately; and that the war on drugs is a war on personal freedom, private property, the Constitution, federalism, personal responsibility, individual liberty, personal and financial privacy, civil liberties, the free market, and freedom itself. I have given lectures on the drug war in which I publicly state the same things as those which I privately write. I have published a book on the drug war titled The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom.
Yet, I must be the most unlikely person to be so passionate about ending the drug war. I am not a liberal, a hippy, a libertine, a hedonist, or a nihilist. I neither advocate nor condone the use of mind-altering, behavior-altering, or mood-altering substances. I wouldn’t use what the government classifies as illegal drugs if they were legal — even if they were free, pure, and safe — and would prefer that no one else use them either. I am a religious person. I am a theologically and culturally conservative Christian. I believe in moral absolutes in general and follow the ethical principles of the New Testament in particular. I accept family values and Judeo-Christian ethics. I think the use of any drug for any reason other than a medical necessity to be unwise, risky, and irresponsible. (I am even skeptical about the health benefits of most legal drugs — prescription or over-the-counter.) I regard drug use to be a vice and an immoral activity. I consider drug abuse to be a sin and a great evil. But at the same time, I would rather see people use drugs than the government wage war on them for doing it. I don’t believe that religious people should support the government’s war on drugs any more than they should support the government’s wars on poverty, obesity, trans fat, cholesterol, salt, cancer, or tobacco. I oppose root and branch every facet of the government’s war on drugs just as much as I oppose the use of drugs themselves.
I am not ignorant of the harmful effects of drug abuse. A drug habit can be financially ruinous. Drugs can be addictive. Lack of money to buy drugs can tempt a person to steal or prostitute his body to get money. Drug abuse can cause a person to lose his job, his friends, his spouse, or his children. Taking drugs can be hazardous to one’s physical and mental health. Abusing drugs can kill you. Nevertheless, I consider the government’s war on drugs to be more dangerous, destructive, and immoral than the use of drugs themselves. Therefore, I reject federal, state, and local drug prohibition of any kind. I am likewise against drug criminalization, drug regulation, drug restrictions, drug licensing, drug taxing, drug oversight, drug testing by government, and limiting the legal use of certain drugs just to medical use.
There are three major reasons why I am so passionate about ending the drug war — the Constitution, the proper role of government, and the hypocrisy of drug warriors. And there are dozens of other reasons as well.
The United States was set up as a federal system of government where the states, through the Constitution, granted a limited number of powers to a central government. As James Madison succinctly explained in Federalist No. 45,
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negociation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.
In Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, there are eighteen paragraphs that enumerate the limited powers granted to Congress. Everything else is reserved to the states.
The Constitution not only doesn’t mention drugs, it nowhere authorizes the federal government to regulate, monitor, or restrict the consumption, medical, or recreational habits of Americans. The federal government has no authority under the Constitution to prohibit or otherwise criminalize the manufacture, sale, possession, or use of any drug. The federal government has no authority under the Constitution to interfere with what Americans put in their mouths, noses, veins, or lungs. The federal government has no authority under the Constitution to intrude itself into the personal eating, drinking, or smoking habits of Americans. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have an Office of National Drug Control Policy, a Drug Enforcement Administration, or a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the Congress to pass a Controlled Substances Act, a Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, or a Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have a National Drug Control Strategy, a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, or a drug czar.
It doesn’t matter what one personally thinks about the dangers or morality of drug use or the proper role of government. It doesn’t matter whether one is a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, a progressive or a moderate, a populist or an independent. Every American should be just as passionate as I am about ending the federal government’s war on drugs because it is such a gross violation of the Constitution. When Progressives in and out of the national government sought to prohibit the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” after World War I, they knew they could do so only by amending the Constitution. That is why the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1919. So until the Constitution is amended to allow the federal government to have something to do with drugs, a war on drugs is completely illegitimate on the federal level. Those who want a war on drugs must, from a constitutional standpoint, wage their war at the state level.
I mentioned in the last paragraph the proper role of government. In a free society, the functions of government — in whatever form it exists — would be limited to prosecuting and exacting restitution from those who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or violate the property rights of others. All government actions, at every level of government, beyond defense, judicial, and policing functions, are illegitimate. In a free society, the government leaves those alone who don’t threaten or initiate violence against the person or property of others. Behavior that some consider to be immoral, unsafe, addictive, unhealthy, risky, sinful, or destructive is none of the government’s business. In a free society, the government doesn’t legislate morality. What is considered immoral, unethical, or sinful is the domain of conscience, family, and religion, not puritanical busybodies, nanny-statists, or government bureaucrats. Any American who favors a government with strict limits should be passionate about ending the drug war.
Drug prohibition is a slippery slope. As the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises explained,
Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments.
And why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.
The establishment of drug prohibition ultimately leads to an authoritarian, nanny state. Says Mises again,
As soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail.
If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away.
In a free society, it is families, friends, counselors, and churches that should be advising individuals on the decision to use or not to use drugs, and it is physicians, psychologists, ministers, and drug treatment centers that should be dealing with the problems of drug abuse — not some paternalistic nanny state.
This nanny state is at its worse when it comes to the war on drugs. As C.S. Lewis well said,
Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
Aside from senseless U.S. foreign wars, I don’t know of anything that has increased the size and scope of government more than the war on drugs.
The hypocrisy of drug warriors knows no limit.
First of all, every bad thing that could be said about drugs could be said about alcohol — and even more so. Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of premature deaths in the United States. Alcohol abuse can be a contributing factor in cases of cancer, mental illness, anemia, cardiovascular disease, dementia, cirrhosis, high blood pressure, and suppression of the immune system. Alcohol abuse is a factor in many drownings, suicides, fires, violent crimes, divorces, child-abuse cases, sex crimes, and accidents. In fact, the number-one killer of Americans under 25 is alcohol-related car crashes. A study a few years ago by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet ranked alcohol as the “most harmful drug,” beating out heroin, crack cocaine, and ecstasy. Although the manufacture and sale of alcohol is heavily regulated by the federal and state governments, anyone is free to drink as much as he wants in his own home without fear of reprisal. In spite of the negative effects of alcohol on morals and health, few Americans long for a return to the days of Prohibition.
Second, the most dangerous substance in America is not cocaine, heroin, or fentanyl. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
- Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
- Smoking causes more deaths each year than the following causes combined: HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor-vehicle injuries, firearm-related incidents.
- More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking as have died in all the wars fought by the United States.
- Cigarette smoking increases risk for death from all causes in men and women.
Although smoking is dangerous, destructive, and deadly, most Americans would still say that people should be allowed to smoke in the privacy of their homes as long as they accept the health risks.
And third, there are plenty of risky and dangerous things people do that the government neither prohibits nor seeks to prevent. Drug warriors believe that the drug war is necessary because using illegal drugs can be addictive, unhealthy, dangerous, and self-destructive. Using drugs can certainly be addictive. Just as checking Facebook, shopping, playing video games, viewing pornography, watching television, and playing the lottery can be addictive. But I don’t hear drug warriors saying that the government should prosecute people for engaging in those addictive behaviors. Using drugs can certainly be unhealthy. But so can ingesting high-fructose corn syrup, eating junk food, and drinking beverages with caffeine. Why, then, are drug warriors not adamant about the government’s sending people to prison for consuming those things? Using drugs can certainly be dangerous. Just as skydiving, bungee jumping, coal mining, boxing, mountain climbing, cliff diving, drag racing, MMA fighting, pro wrestling, skiing, riding in a hot-air balloon, using a chainsaw, and crossing the street at a busy intersection can be dangerous. Yet I’ve never heard a drug warrior say that the government should prosecute people for engaging in dangerous behaviors such as those. Using drugs can certainly be self-destructive. But so can gambling, having casual sex, gluttony, smoking cigarettes, and, as mentioned above, drinking alcohol. A free society has to include the right of people to take risks, practice bad habits, engage in addictive conduct, engage in self-destructive behavior, live an unhealthy lifestyle, participate in immoral activities, and undertake dangerous actions — including the use and abuse of drugs.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because the federal government should follow its own Constitution.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because I don’t want an intrusive government.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because the costs of drug prohibition far outweigh any of its supposed benefits.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because I don’t want to live in an authoritarian society.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it is such a complete and utter failure.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because of all its injustices and absurdities.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because I don’t want to live in a nanny state.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because there is no warrant in the New Testament for Christians to support a government war on drugs or anything else.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it is impossible to reconcile it with a limited government.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because drug prohibition is the cornerstone of a police state.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it has had little or no impact on the use or availability of most drugs in the United States.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it has wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it is an illegitimate function of government to criminalize voluntary, consensual, peaceful activity.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it unnecessarily makes criminals out of otherwise law-abiding Americans.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because only persons who initiate violence or aggression against someone else should ever be incarcerated.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it is not the proper role of government to prohibit, regulate, restrict, or otherwise control what a man desires to eat, drink, smoke, inject, absorb, snort, sniff, inhale, swallow, or otherwise ingest into his mouth, nose, veins, or lungs.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it is an illegitimate purpose of government to try to protect people from bad habits, harmful substances, vice, or their own foolishness.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it is individual persons, not government bureaucrats, who should decide what risks they are willing to take and what behaviors are in their own best interests.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because government bureaucrats shouldn’t be telling people what they may and may not do.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because people should be free to live their lives in any manner they choose as long as their activities are non-violent, non-disorderly, non-disruptive, non-threatening, and noncoercive.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because I don’t want to give up my personal and financial privacy.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it clogs the judicial system with non-crimes.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because having bad habits, exercising poor judgment, engaging in dangerous activities, and committing vices are not crimes.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it is not the job of government to define and enforce morality.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because people should be allowed to do anything that’s peaceful as long as they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because the heavy hand of government is not the solution to any problems resulting from drug abuse.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because people should be responsible for the consequences of their own actions.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because government at all levels should be as limited as possible.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because every crime needs a tangible and identifiable victim who has suffered measurable harm to his person or measurable damages to his property.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because it has militarized the police and corrupted law enforcement.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because I don’t want puritanical busybodies telling people how they should live their life.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because I believe in respecting property rights.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because I want to live in a free society.
I am so passionate about ending the drug war because the war on drugs is a war on freedom.
This article was originally published in the November 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.