Drugs and the Law
October 10, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, the United States 
fought another brief undeclared war on Panama. The 
purpose was to overthrow Manuel Noriega, the menacing 
Saddam Hussein of his day. He was a truly depraved 
dictator, we were told, who wore red underwear and 
smuggled drugs. By removing him from power the United 
States was going to deal the international drug trade a 
lethal blow, just as (we're now assured) it's going to 
smash international terrorism by deposing Saddam Hussein.

     Today Noriega is living in a Florida prison, but the 
drug trade is still thriving. And the "War on Drugs," 
declared by the first President Bush, continues. Does 
anyone care to draw lessons?

     Sheldon Richman does. Writing in FREEDOM DAILY, the 
monthly of The Future of Freedom Foundation, Richman 
points out that the War on Drugs has been an utter 
failure, doing far more harm than good. Today, he writes, 
"[illegal] drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and 
cheaper than ever.... The authorities can't even keep 
drugs out of prisons -- which fact alone should end all 
argument." For all we know, Noriega may be enjoying them 
in his cell right now.

     If you doubt that man learns from history, consider 
the obvious parallel: Prohibition. The attempt to rid 
America of alcoholic beverages was another moralistic 
crusade that backfired. It was chiefly a boon to 
organized crime. When booze was outlawed, only Al Capone 
and Joe Kennedy could sell booze. They, and men like 
them, controlled the huge illegal market Prohibition 
created. And Prohibition was finally repealed. In the War 
on Alcohol, the government finally had the good sense to 
admit defeat and surrender.

     The government seems determined never to do this 
again. Taking on impossible tasks and fighting unwinnable 
wars give it a mandate for limitless power. It sees an 
illegal market as an opportunity, even if victory is 
forever elusive.

     Arresting one drug dealer doesn't deter others -- or 
at least not enough of them. The illegal drug market 
simply replaces them with hardier entrepreneurs who are 
attracted by ever-growing profits and are willing to take 
the risks of operating outside the law.

     Richman explains how it works with an incisiveness 
that can hardly be improved on:

     "There is one key difference between a legal and an 
illegal market. In the latter a premium is placed on 
skill at employing violence. In a black market, normal 
security and dispute-resolution procedures are 
unavailable. So 'justice' is procured more directly. This 
offers an advantage to people proficient in the use of 
physical force. The drug trade is violent not because of 
drugs, but because of the war on drugs. If drugs are 
outlawed, only outlaws will sell drugs. And outlaws tend 
to be not only skilled but also uninhibited in the use of 

     Richman also points to another difference between 
Prohibition and the War on Drugs. Advocates of 
Prohibition realized that the Federal Government had no 
constitutional power to ban alcohol; so they amended the 
Constitution, adding the Eighteenth Amendment. But the 
Federal Government also has no power to ban other drugs. 
This time, however, nobody has bothered to amend the 
Constitution. The government has simply gone ahead and 
assumed -- that is, usurped -- the necessary power, in 
simple contempt of the Constitution. It has done the same 
with firearms, ignoring the Second Amendment.

     Ironically, as Richman notes, the War on Drugs 
itself has made crimes with firearms a far more serious 
problem than they ever were before. Conservatives who 
hate gun control don't make this connection, and they 
usually support the War on Drugs while trying to resist 
the pressure for gun control to which it inevitably gives 

     There is a lingering notion that legalizing drugs 
would signify official approval of them. This doesn't 
follow. It would merely mean that every individual would 
have to take responsibility for his own conduct with 
drugs, as he does with alcohol. Would this mean an 
increase in drug use and addiction? Probably, though only 
a marginal one. No doubt the repeal of Prohibition 
resulted in a marginal increase in alcoholism.

     But just as repealing Prohibition was a blow to 
organized crime, legalizing drugs would mean a sharp 
decrease in violent street crime. And also a reduction of 
tyranny. The War on Drugs itself has aggravated the 
problem of lawless government.


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