A War in America

I don't like the drug issue. For years, I felt it typified the outrageousness of a government gone berserk, so I made it a point to discuss the Drug War frequently. After 9/11, I came to think that the less metaphorical War on Terrorism deserved the majority of my scrutiny. I started believing that the bombing of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq warranted more attention than the prohibitions of heroin and marijuana. At a time when we non-statists seemed to have enough trouble discerning ourselves from the Left in our opposition to military interventions, I believed that appearing to hold similarly 'liberal' views on drugs proved an unnecessary vulnerability in our efforts to sway the masses away from their embrace of the state.

Now that I have had more time to reflect on it, I realize how close I came to forgetting the importance of the Drug War, not as an isolated policy of misery and repression, but as one of the very worst tentacles of the modern state. It is not the root of all evil, but in the last 30 years, it has possibly achieved more than any other policy at enriching the soil from which the mighty state has grown. To push the analogy to the extreme, if taxation is the water, public schooling the sunlight, and central banking the lifeblood ' as my fellow Root Striker Ace Baker has so compellingly shown ' then wars, foreign and domestic, constitute the state's fertilizer, and the War on Drugs has become a gargantuan pile of manure, engulfing millions of victims and providing the nutrients for the state to grow, pushing aside all of us who only wish to coexist peacefully among each other in a mutually beneficial ecosystem.

Americans like to think of themselves as more jealous of their liberties than the peoples of other countries. We may well be. But to the extent that we are so willing to tolerate so many abuses that our great, great grandparents would have likely fought tooth and nail '' the searches in airports, the flocks of police cars on our streets, the absurd regulations of our businesses, the violations of our financial privacy, the restrictions of our political and commercial speech, the snooping on our e-mail, the metal detectors in our schools, the hefty deductions from our paychecks, the attacks on our gun rights, and even the arrogance of the DMV ' a good deal of it, perhaps the lion's share, traces back to when the choice of what people could put inside their own bodies became stolen from them and handed over to Congress, the president, and a bunch of bureaucrats.

On the national level, American politicians first took it upon themselves to rob this intimate decision from individuals as it concerned alcohol, a liquid that people had consumed for 10,000 years. Apparently, passing a law didn't stop people from doing what they had been doing for 10,000 years, and the Noble Experiment finally came to an end. Bureaucrats like Harry Anslinger wanted to keep their jobs, so they decided to go after marijuana, the use of which predates the use of the number zero, and which has been used medically, on record, for about 5,000 years in China . The Turks, Indians and Assyrians began using it hundreds of years before the founding of Christianity, and ancient Greeks like Homer, Herodotus, and Theocritus understood the medicinal values of the herb a couple dozen centuries before the city of Oakland ever caught on and 'decriminalized' medical use.

The real issue, of course, goes way beyond medicine and pertains to the fundamental principle of self-ownership. I see no sense at all in the very notion that human beings have to get permission before they can burn something that grows out of the ground and inhale the byproduct of the resulting chemical reaction. Fire is also something that humans have had for a long, long time, and yet have seemed to deal with responsibly more often than not. With the way things are going, they'll probably outlaw flint and steel next.

Of course, when we live in a culture that puts people in iron cages for ingesting and distributing unapproved substances for longer periods of time than people who rape and murder others, it's hard to look at any other government policy and have difficulty understanding its contradictions. It's a world gone mad, after all.

Most Americans do not want to see drugs legalized, but they stipulate that the Drug War is a failure. I disagree with them on both counts. The Drug War has been an enormous success, as far as the government and its friends are concerned. It was a success for Harry Anslinger, who got to keep his job. It's a huge success for the prison guards, the police departments, the district attorneys and judges. It's a success for the Congressmen and women, the bureaucrats, the president and all his cronies. It's a success for the Pentagon, the SWAT teams, the National Guard and the FBI. It's a success for the big pharmaceutical corporations, the tobacco companies, the liquor distilleries, and the manufacturers of battering rams and bullet-proof vests.

Now, some of the legitimate businesses that benefit one way or another from the Drug War might also prosper well in its absence, perhaps even better. And maybe the prison guards would too, once they found honest work. It's hard for me to say, and it's probably even harder for them. So they certainly have little incentive to reform things. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, and a cushy government job is probably better than the uncertainties that arise in a free country.

The Drug War is one of the most successful programs the government has ever instituted. It fails to stop drug use, or even curtail it substantially ' all the better for the Drug Warriors, who cite increases in drug use (as well as the occasional reduction) as reason to feed their coffers and line their pockets.

With most government programs, the taxpayers don't get what they pay for, and it's a good thing. In the case of the Drug War, the $30,000 annually spent on each prison inmate produces more than $30,000 worth of misery you'd get from a typical government program. The millions spent on each prison translate into one of the most economically efficient ways to intimidate the American population, and show it who's boss. The tens of billions spent each year on the Drug War probably do more damage than practically any other government expenditure of commensurate cost, except possibly the anomalously cost-effective dropping of atomic weapons on crowded cities.

I hate the drug issue, because I hate having to explain these simple facts, and to attempt convincing folks of the basic principles involved. Sometimes I think there's little hope for any kind of advancement in freedom as long as the Drug War persists. If Americans think it's right to lock harmless hippies in cages with rapists, only to let the rapists out first, how are they going to understand the complexities of antitrust? If they don't find it unnerving that innocent people are strip-searched in airports because they might be carrying 6,000 year-old Chinese medicine, how can we expect them to grasp the subtleties of central banking? If they don't see that it's wrong to put a gun to someone's head, rip him away from his crying children, and take his house away from his family, all because his boss named him as an accomplice so as to receive a lighter prison sentence for the possession of a chemical that unsupervised children could buy in general stores 90 years ago, how can we expect them to relinquish their faith in central banking?

Actually, I guess for some people, the Drug War is easier to rationalize than the other policies I mention. For them, 'small' government should be just big enough to tell people what they can swallow and snort, jail them if they disobey, and search our homes randomly to ensure compliance.

All in all, though, the willingness of so many Americans to put up with so much government insanity would come to a decisive end if they saw the Drug War for what it was, demanded that it be ended, and looked at the freer, more peaceful America that came about, openly pondering what else the government has lied to them about their whole lives. Sadly, I'm becoming increasingly pessimistic about the chances of that happening soon.

When I read the news about the kids shot in their beds because the cops had the wrong address and no one even losing his job as a result, I sit there completely baffled that we still have these unspeakably immoral drug policies. I just can't understand it. To clarify: I understand the economics and the politics, the propaganda and the moral posturing. What I don't understand is why everyone can't just stop for three seconds, look at the reality of what's going on, and become instantly as disgusted as I am.

And that's why I don't like the drug issue.

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Anthony Gregory's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute, a Policy Advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist at LewRockwell.com. His website is AnthonyGregory.com.