Against the Drug War

 Posted by on 20 April 2009 at 11:01 pm  Law, Politics
Apr 202009

An old student of mine recently wrote me asking my views about the drug war. Here’s what I wrote in reply:

Like you, I’d like to live in a society of rational, productive, and interesting people — as opposed to stoners, addicts, and the like. However, I would argue that drug prohibition actually undermines that goal, as well as endangers innocent people. You simply cannot force people to be rational, productive, and interesting people — and the costs of attempting to do so are enormous.

Drug prohibition creates more serious drug problems. Due to the legal risks of using drugs, people are more inclined to seek stronger and shorter highs. That, plus the unknown nature of most street drugs, promotes overdoses, addiction, and other medical problems. As the price of drugs rises hugely with the risks, drug addicts turn to stealing to support their habit. Moreover, the scum of the earth have a strong incentive to become drug dealers. Then, because those drug dealers operate outside the law, gang warfare becomes a way of doing business. Ordinary people simply attempting to live their lives are caught in the crossfire.

Even with all those problems, the drug war has been completely ineffective: illegal drugs are as plentiful and easily available as ever. We have no reason to think that greater brutality in the drug war — like executing drug dealers — will make much of a difference. (Such people often have little regard for their own lives, I think.) Plus, the costs of an overzealous police force are quite severe. No-knock raids on wrong houses are quite common these days. People are routinely killed as a result — not just innocent residents but also police officers. (The homeowner often reasonably thinks himself to be in the midst of a violent home invasion, and so shoots a police officer.) The result is that ordinary, law-abiding people are abused and endangered by the police, rather than protected by them.

Moreover, once you accept the principle that the state ought to force people to do or not do something for the sake of some supposedly greater social good, then that’s the end of all individual liberty. Someone can always make a case against anything that a person might do. So if a majority of people think that the world would be a better place if you didn’t read certain controversial books, watch certain violent television programs, marry certain kinds of people, and so on, then laws could be passed and law-breakers hunted down. The world would be a much poorer — and more frightful — place as a result.

Even if drug prohibition could stamp out drug use, I would regard it as too much of a cost to bear. However, given that drug prohibition makes the drug problem worse, I think the only sensible thing to do is repeal it. Sure, just like with alcohol, gambling, sex, food, and every other pleasure, some people will abuse drugs. They would be welcome to ruin their own lives, but in a capitalist society no one else would be obliged to associate with them, pay for their medical care, or whatnot. Absent some danger to others, like driving drunk or high, the law would not intervene. They could quietly destroy themselves, if they pleased. You could avoid such people entirely — unless you chose to associate with or otherwise help them.

All of that is probably more than you needed or wanted to hear from me! However, you might find the following writings from the Cato Institute on the drug war of interest. I don’t agree with Cato on lots of things, but I think they’re pretty good on this issue.

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