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Drugs and the Law

October 10, 2002

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 And Prohibition was finally repealed.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.

[Breaker quote: Illegal markets and lawless government]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 force.”

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 rise.

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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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