Smoked Out

One War We Should Be Happy to Lose Once and For All: the Drug War

So Dubya’s old drug czar says victory in the war on drugs is imminent. That’s nonsense—and it’s a war we need to end anyway.

It turns out that Dick Cheney isn’t the only Bush administration muckety-muck still fighting the last war.

Even as the former vice-president took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to blame Barack Obama for the deteriorating situation in Iraq, George W. Bush’s drug czar, John P. Walters, is arguing in Politico that no, really, victory in the war on drugs is just around the corner. We’ve just got to hold the line, don’t you see, especially against Barack Obama, “whose administration has facilitated marijuana legalization” despite also setting a record for federal raids against medical pot dispensaries in California.

More important, insists Walters, is that you understand “Why Libertarians Are Wrong About Drugs.” Well, OK. I know I’ve been wrong about drugs at times. For instance, I seriously worried that Colorado might have taxed its fully legal pot out of reach of most buyers, thus allowing a black market to thrive. But it turns out that the biggest problem in the Centennial State is how to spend extra tax revenues generated by pot sales, which are coming in 40 percent higher than expected. Oh yeah, and crime is down in Denver.

Recognizing that public opinion increasingly backs treating pot similar to beer, wine, and alcohol, Walters explains that the “the libertarian commitment to freedom should absolutely be acknowledged and, in a time of growing state control, defended. But, when it comes to drugs, libertarians have yet to grasp just how much drug abuse undermines individual freedom and erodes the very core of the libertarian ideal.”

This is simply the old, unconvincing argument that currently (read: arbitrarily) illegal drugs rob individuals of the ability to act rationally or purposefully and thus present a special case in which freedom must be disallowed. This canard is as worn as out as a meth addict’s gums. The same thing was said about booze in the run-up to Prohibition, of course: The man takes a drink and then the drink takes the man and all that.

There’s no question that some people develop problems with drugs, booze, and just about anything else you can think of. However, that tells us precisely nothing about the best policy options. Indeed, the data cited by Walters himself undermine his special pleading. In 2012, the latest year for which National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) data are available, a smaller percentage of people (8.5 percent) had issues with abuse or dependency than they did in 2002 (9.4 percent). That’s despite increasing access to pot (whether medical or recreational), the only illegal drug that more than 1 percent of Americans use in a given month. Arguably as important, more than three times as many Americans abuse or are dependent on alcohol as they are on “illicit” drugs (the government’s designation). If helping people with substance-abuse problems is your main concern, you know where to start.

If Walters’ central claim that drugs will turn us into a bunch of Soma addicts straight out of Brave New World were true, government statistics of lifetime use versus regular use wouldn’t show such a consistently massive variance. In the latest NSDUH, though, 43 percent of Americans have tried pot at least once but only 7.3 percent have used it in the past month. (And needless to say, smoking dope in the past month is not evidence of abuse or dependency.) Even for drugs supposedly as instantly addictive as heroin, the spread between lifetime use and past-month use (a proxy for regular use) is massive: 1.8 percent have copped heroin at least once, yet only 0.1 percent have used in the last month.

Having failed at proving his central argument, Walters, like most drug warriors, is quick to move on to speculative arguments that are trippier than a laser light show. Since two states have started treating marijuana more like booze, it’s the right time to ask, “What is to replace prohibition?... All these marijuana users that are reliable supporters of pro-legalization candidates in their state campaigns... How would we feel if they were all heroin users, compelled by their disease to support a particular political candidate? The fact that the United States is currently experiencing a surge in heroin makes this a question worth asking.”

As it happens, the “surge in heroin” is phony, the latest iteration of the ragged old “new drug of choice” story that the media and law enforcement love to huff like so much jenkem.

But what exactly will replace prohibition? When it comes to pot, we’ve got two states—and the country of Uruguay--exploring options right now. When it comes to wider-ranging experiments, we’ve got countries such as Portugal, which decriminalized drugs a dozen years ago and has had strongly positive results. And we’ve got our own imperfect repeal of alcohol prohibition to learn from.

Exactly what a more libertarian America—one in which adults are allowed to modulate their moods more freely--will look like is anybody’s guess. But just about anything would be preferable to a decades-old drug war that has spent trillions of dollars, locked up millions of people, warped American foreign policy, shredded the Constitution, and stolen time from K-12 classrooms. Only battle-fatigued drug warriors like John Walters can’t see that.