Libertarians and the Drug War
With June 2021 being the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs,” an ever-increasing number of editorials and op-eds are calling for an end to the drug war. This is an extremely positive sign, not only because it brings America closer to ending this evil, immoral, and destructive government program, but also because it shows the power of ideas on liberty.
The intellectual climate was entirely different back in 1989, when I started The Future of Freedom Foundation. Back then, it was mostly only libertarians who were calling for an end to the drug war — and not all libertarians at that. The idea of drug legalization was considered weird, bizarre, and beyond the pale of legitimate discourse. People were simply not ready to hear such a radical message.
After all, the argument went, anyone who favored drug legalization obviously favored drug use and drug abuse. People simply could not understand that advocating an end to the drug war did not necessarily connote support of drugs themselves.
Back then, I was appearing on lots of talk-radio programs. I knew that I could always light up the phone lines by calling for drug legalization. People were outraged that anyone could possibly favor such a position.
I was once invited to deliver a talk on libertarianism to a libertarian club at a public high school in Houston. Parents of a student in the club learned that I favored drug legalization. They called a member of the school board, who called the principal, who called the club’s sponsor, who called me. You would have thought that World War III had broken out.
In the end, they let me deliver my talk, which included the case for legalizing drugs. I emphasized both the moral and the utilitarian case for drug legalization. I said that a free society necessarily is one in which people are free to ingest whatever they want to ingest, no matter how harmful. I also pointed out the horrific consequences of the drug war, especially in terms of drug gangs and drug cartels, just like when booze was criminalized.
The girl whose parents made the call to the school board, was in the audience. So were her parents. I can only imagine how embarrassed she must have been. During the Q&A session, one student raised his hand and asked, “Why is it that some people are so scared to consider different ideas?” Before I could answer, another student responded, “It’s what happens to you when you get old.”
We devoted the April 1990 issue of our journal Future of Freedom, which was then called Freedom Daily, to the drug war. Included in that issue was a reprint of an article by Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning libertarian economist, entitled “An Open Letter to Bill Bennett,” which had appeared in the September 7, 1989, issue of the Wall Street Journal.
As the federal government’s so-called drug czar at that time, Bennett was charged with enforcing the drug war. Friedman beseeched him to bring an end to the drug-war insanity. The article is well worth reading today. It is a perfect indictment of the war on drugs, even though written more than 30 years ago. Friedman wrote:
Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favor are a major source of the evils you deplore. Of course the problem is demand, but it is not only demand, it is demand that must operate through repressed and illegal channels. Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault.That wasn’t the first time Friedman advocated an end to the drug war. Back in 1972, the year after Nixon declared his war on drugs, Friedman wrote an article entitled “Prohibition and Drugs,” which appeared in the May 1, 1972, issue of Newsweek. That article is also well worth reading today. Friedman wrote:
Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike. Our experience with the prohibition of drugs is a replay of our experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.
Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and raise the quality of law enforcement. Can you conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order?…. In drugs, as in other areas, persuasion and example are likely to be far more effective than the use of force to shape others in our image.Finally, it’s worth mentioning what John Erlichmann, Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, said about the drug war, according to author Dan Baum in an article in Harper’s Magazine:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.For the past 50 years, libertarians have been leading the way toward ending this horrific government program. Today, the drug war is teetering, held in place mostly by the people who are benefiting from it, i.e., drug lords and drug-enforcement personnel. The progress is a testament to the power of ideas on liberty and to the importance of adhering to principle when it comes to advancing liberty. Let’s keep pushing until we see the end of this evil, immoral, failed, and destructive government program.
Reprinted with permission from Future of Freedom Foundation.