photo credit: devlantd

The federal government loves its hobby programs, especially anything and everything related to war. As Randolph Bourne said, “War is the health of the state.” Expansion and consolidation of power is facilitated by war, where a citizenry paralyzed with fear (usually propagated by the would-be federal saviors) clamors for protection from the only apparatus they consider able to deter the threat.

In the past century alone, we have had (at a minimum) a war on cancer, crime, poverty, drugs, and terror. Packaged in this militaristic manner, the federal appropriators find it easier to fund the purchase of the relevant armaments and defenses, and the bureaucratic busybodies encounter less resistance when pushing the front lines of the battle further in the direction of American citizens.

While each of these wars is an absurd waste of money, justification of expansive federal powers, and an assault on individual liberty, the war of drugs stands out as being one of the more notable wars in which we are forcibly engaged. The history of this war is like any of the other wars, featuring a supposed do-gooder President seeking to rid the country of some perceived evil. While the government had fought against “illicit” drug production and distribution previously, this war was first officially named and declared by Richard Nixon in 1973 with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Thus began the “all-out global war on the drug menace,” which in reality has been a continual skirmish leading back to 1914.

This war has cost the taxpayers some $2.5 trillion, resulting in hundreds of thousands of arrests for non-violent “crimes”, filling our jails and increasing taxpayer dependency. As of 2004, drug crimes accounted for 21% of state prisoners and 55% of all federal prisoners. Of note:

What’s amazing is that most of this imprisoning trend is recent, dating really from the 1980s, and most of the change is due to drug laws. From 1925 to 1975, the rate of imprisonment was stable at 110, lower than the international average, which is what you might expect in a country that purports to value freedom. But then it suddenly shot up in the 1980s. There were 30,000 people in jail for drugs in 1980, while today there are half a million.

The results are no less shocking than they are absurd. Consider just a few:

  • In 2008, there were 763 wiretaps performed under the authority of the PATRIOT Act. Only three were related to terrorism—allegedly the point of the entire piece of legislation. 65% were used in drug cases.
  • The government itself has been a distributor of illegal drugs, such as in the Iran Contra Affair. Done also in the supposed name of science, the federal government has for decades supplied taxpayer-funded researchers with cocaine, morphine, and other hard drugs to be used in testing on lab rats human addicts.
  • A 10-year-old girl from New York was suspended from school for bringing peppermint oil—an “unregulated over-the-counter drug”, according to the school district—and distributing it to her friends.
  • Government-approved drugs have killed far, far more people than marijuana—a drug that has become a foundational object of the war on drugs.
  • While around 10,000 people die each year from the effects of illegal drugs, a Journal of the American Medical Association article notes that around 106,000 hospitalized patients die each year from properly-prescribed and administered drugs. Additionally, over two million people suffer serious side effects.
  • Legalization of marijuana in the USA would lead to a $7.7 billion drop in law enforcement costs and generate $6.2 billion in tax revenue.
  • In addition to targeting drug cartels and alley-way distributors, licensed doctors are criminally charged for prescribing certain drugs to their patients.
  • Drug-related violence in the border areas between the USA and Mexico exceeded 7,000 people in 2009 (1,000 of them dying in January and February). Over the past three years, the death toll has reached over 16,000.
  • Early this year, a militarized SWAT team stormed into a Missouri home, fired seven rounds at the family’s two pet dogs as their seven-year-old son looked on, and arrested the father for possession of a “small amount” of marijuana. After this reckless invasion in pursuit of such a small drug stash, the family was charged with “child endangerment”—as if the flying bullets from the armed-to-the-teeth police officers posed no danger.

After well over 40 years of this war, the list of such stories is as endless as the list of individuals incarcerated for possessing a drug deemed illegal by the government. These government assaults on otherwise-peaceful individuals have usually been either tolerated or praised by Christian citizens who see these substances as immoral and therefore approve of punishment for whoever is involved in selling, distributing, purchasing, or consuming them.

Where is the line drawn, and why? Were the government to outlaw high fructose corn syrup, would people tolerate a battle-hardened squadron of government-sanctioned goons busting down their door and hauling them off to prison for possessing a Diet Coke? Should we likewise target people with chronic hay fever for desiring to purchase an ample supply of antihistamines? Were the lobbyists of alcohol and tobacco companies somehow neutralized in their capacity to influence legislation, would people support throwing the full weight of the law against smokers and drinkers, too?

First and foremost, any regulation of drug possession and consumption is constitutionally left to each state to handle. The federal intervention into such private actions is an alarming instance of a government that is too big, too intrusive, and too domineering. If a state did decide to engage in such a “war” against its citizens on its own, it would be constrained by several factors from which the federal government is exempt, such as having to directly tax their citizens to fund the war and being far more responsive to the will of the citizens due to state legislators representing a much smaller constituency.

The fundamental question, even at a state level, is: is there a proper goal of drug regulation, and how can that goal be effectively realized? Sadly, the intent of the war on drugs is, put simply, to save Americans from themselves. On this warfront and others, the nanny state has gained a strong footing upon which to erect an expensive, expansive, and exhaustive government apparatus which, with thousands of pages of regulatory minutia, has taken as its primary victim the liberty of each once-sovereign individual.

Government is not needed in this area. Most people refrain from doing hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine not because they are illegal, but because they are dangerous. As with other subjects, education is key in helping people understand the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, the involvement of the nanny state has led many parents to delegate their own responsibilities to entities like the Drug Enforcement Agency for education (through Public Service Announcements), regulation, and enforcement. The burden of these activities must be returned to individuals themselves, so that they can enjoy their agency and suffer the consequences for whatever action they take.

Drastic and immediate steps need to be taken in order to diminish the police state, ease the burden on our prison system, and restore individual liberty; two stand out as paramount in both importance and urgency. First, controlled substances—especially marijuana—should be decriminalized at the federal level. Second, the FDA and the DEA should be dismantled. The execution of these two steps would do far more to end the drug problem than any piece of legislation, empowered bureaucrat, or multi-billion dollar program could ever dream.

The decades-long experiment of conducting government-sponsored warfare against drug distribution and consumption has failed, and failed miserably. It is time for the government to wave the white flag of surrender and meet the demands of its supposed enemy; individuals must be left free to make their own choices regarding what they would like to ingest.


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