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Legacy Lost:

America’s un-winnable "War on Drugs" is ultimately a war on liberty

by Paul V. Knittel Jr


Finally, we Americans can say that we have won the war on drugs. Anti-drug legislation has wiped out the existence of all illicit drugs. No longer are only half of our prison beds available for drug offenders; the steady stream of violent criminal parolees has finally created enough room for the forty-million-plus casual drug users who were breaking our zero-tolerance laws. It is to the credit of the politicians, who were soliciting our votes, that mandatory drug offense sentencing finally put all of the drug offenders in prison to stay. God bless America? Contrary to what the politicians might say, America’s counterproductive war on drugs has destroyed the inner cities, imprisoned thousands of people, and pumped billions of dollars into organized crime and government bureaucracies.

First, inflated drug prices force the drug user to resort to extraordinary measures to obtain the huge amounts of money he or she needs to purchase drugs. Author and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne writes, "A dose that in a legalized environment might cost $2 can cost $200" (131). This puts the lower class drug user at an obvious disadvantage. The results are in; according to Professor Milton Friedman of Stanford University, when the war on drugs was officially declared by Richard Nixon in the 1960’s, "the homicide rate . . . soared" ("A War," 45). Dr. Mary Ruwart agrees; in her book, Healing Our World, Dr. Ruwart emphasizes, "The War on Drugs kill [sic] more people than the drugs themselves!" (185). The drug war also directly affects our children.

For the young, it is exciting to be involved in something taboo. The simple illegality of drugs promotes their rebel allure. Alan Burris, author of A Liberty Primer, conveys that during Alcohol Prohibition, "people drank more than ever because of the glamour of doing the forbidden" (350). Also, the lure of more money than most children’s parents make in a month being made available for one day’s work is overpowering. The steady stream of inner-city kids caught up in violent drug-dealer turf wars bears witness to this fact (Greider 186-87).

David Bergland, Adjunct Professor of Law at Western State University in California, explains, "These consequences in the War on Drugs fall most heavily on young, urban, black males. In major cities about half of them are at some time arrested, imprisoned or on probation for drug law violations" (62). Although drug addiction is a medical problem, American voters have chosen jail as their intended solution.

"Drug violators comprised 60% of the individuals sentenced to federal prisons in 1993," reports Browne (130). The overcrowding of our prisons is caused directly by the stiff mandatory sentencing laws imposed upon drug offenders. It is this overcrowding that is pushing the violent criminals out of prison on early parole. Sadly, it is common knowledge among convicts in America today that even murder can cost you much less time behind bars than many drug offenses. Something is seriously wrong with our priorities. In his book, Restoring the American Dream, author Robert J. Ringer asserts, "Probably no other promoting-the-general-welfare function of government causes so many innocent people (including non-users of drugs) so many problems" (190). Unfortunately, there is now truth in the former myth that marijuana use leads to harder drugs; after all, why stop with marijuana use when you are already a criminal? (Burris 350-51).

There are immensely huge profits to be made in the illegal drug trade. Ian Vasquez, assistant director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Global Economics, states, "As long as drugs remain illegal in consuming countries—thus artificially raising their final price. . . the enormous profit potential will provide a sufficient incentive for producers to supply market demands" (333). The drug trade is even a large part of the Gross National Product of Latin American countries. "One expert estimates that revenues from the narcotics business equal about 36 percent of GNP and represent Colombia’s largest source of foreign income," reveals Vasquez (332). In Peru, the central bank "takes in $4 million to $6 million narcodollars every day" (Vasquez 331). Is it hard to imagine how profits of this magnitude can cause corruption? A twelve-year-old street corner crack peddler can easily earn over a thousand dollars per day; this must seem like a golden career opportunity to a juvenile enamored by the rich trappings of his local black market kingpin.

Likewise, there are thousands of well paying jobs in the many government bureaucracies created or assigned to fight the war on drugs. Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, United States Treasury Department, Internal Revenue Service, United States Navy, United States Coast Guard, National Guard, United States Army, United States Air Force, United States Marine Corps, United States Customs Office, and state and local Police and Sheriff’s departments are all involved in trying to stop society from doing what it obviously wants to do anyway. What is the price?

Local, State, and Federal agencies are expending countless billions (that’s billion, as in one-thousand-million) of tax dollars per year to interdict, indict, and imprison those involved in the illicit drug trade. In 1992 alone, 11.9 BILLION dollars were spent by our federal government (does not include state and local expenditures) in the war on drugs (Vasquez 325). The many new laws enacted to fight drug traffic have trampled and effectively diminished every citizen’s civil rights, legal rights, property rights, moral rights, personal rights, rights of privacy, rights to due process, rights of ownership, and rights to freedom from illegal search and seizure. Is it worth it? Is it working? Most honest people believe that these abuses cannot hurt them personally.

The war on drugs in America has existed for as long as any of us has been alive, and the costs of this war on American society are staggering. Has the war on drugs curtailed their availability? Ask any American teenager how hard it is to obtain drugs. Drugs of any type and unknown purity can easily be obtained. The harder America has tried to legislatively eradicate the drug problem, the more profound it has become. This was true during alcohol Prohibition as well. According to Thomas M. Coffey, author of The Long Thirst—Prohibition in America: 1920-1933, "Prohibition . . . increased lawlessness and drinking and aggravated alcohol abuse" (qtd. in Ruwart 184). Professor Friedman argues, in An Open Letter to Bill Bennett, "Had drugs been decriminalized . . .years ago, ‘crack’ would never have been invented (it was invented because the high cost of illegal drugs made it profitable to provide a cheaper version) and there would today be far fewer addicts" (4).

Why should uninvolved Americans scrutinize such issues? The drug war has caused the use of "extraordinary" police actions (Machan 128). If property (the family boat found to have a manufacturing void, for example, or cash, if you carry too much of it, especially in Florida) is seized for any reason, a person may attempt to recover it in court. First, a lawyer must be retained. Legal retainers range from twelve hundred dollars to twelve thousand dollars. This money is the lawyer’s fee; the client does not get this money back, and the total fee can be much more. Anyone who has been trapped in government bureaucracy knows that it will take a long and protracted battle to obtain justice. Should it be surprising that the loudest voices raised against decriminalization come from those people with the most to lose: those involved in the courts and law enforcement and especially the drug traffickers themselves?

With the drug problem escalating with every new anti-drug effort, is it not clear that this is exactly opposite of the way we should be dealing with it? Will we wake up one day in the near future and suddenly realize that we have surrendered all of our rights and freedoms to the government entities who preyed on our fears with distorted propaganda? Can we, the American voters, stop whining, "What’s the government going to do about it?"

The answer is crystal clear. We must take back our rights and stand up to each of our individual responsibilities. We must abolish non-violent, victimless crime. When we do, we will effectively destroy the huge profits and pervasive violence inherent with black markets. We will, in effect, take back our cities, take back our families, and take back our moneys. Most importantly, we will take back our country. Do we have the guts? If we do not, then we do not deserve to stand in the blood of our patriots, who died for these freedoms, and call ourselves Americans. To say that drug decriminalization is promoting drug abuse, or is sending the wrong message to our children, is like saying that pro-lifers promote birth defects, or are in favor of sexual promiscuity.

Most young Americans believe that freedom is simply an inherent right to live and behave however they please, but this shallow interpretation concerns perhaps the least important aspect of liberty. Freedom requires tireless self-maintenance of each individual's knowledge and awareness in order to ensure continued autonomy. The urgent message we must send to our children is that with freedom comes tremendous personal responsibility.


Works Cited

Bergland, David. Libertarianism in One Lesson. Costa Mesa: Orpheus, 1993.

Browne, Harry. Why Government Doesn’t Work. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

Burris, Alan. A Liberty Primer. Rochester: Society for Individual Liberty, 1983.

Friedman, Milton. "A War We’re Losing." Trebach and Zeese 45-47.

---. "An Open Letter to Bill Bennett." Trebach and Zeese 3-5.

Greider, William. Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy. New

     York: Simon, 1992.

Machan, Tibor. Private Rights and Public Illusions. Oakland: Independent Institute, 1995.

Ringer, Robert J. Restoring the American Dream. New York: Harper, 1979.

Ruwart, Mary J. Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle. Kalamazoo:

     SunStar, 1992.

Trebach, Arnold S., and Kevin B. Zeese. Friedman & Szasz On Liberty And Drugs.

     Washington: Drug Policy Foundation P, 1992.

Vasquez, Ian. "Ending Washington’s International War on Drugs." Market Liberalism: A

     Paradigm for the 21st Century. Ed. David Boaz and Edward H. Crane. Washington: Cato,


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