I don't use marijuana, medical or otherwise. I don't plan to take it up. Still, like an increasing number of Americans, I am vehemently opposed to the war on drugs.
Several powerful arguments can be proffered in support of the notion that drug use is a poor life decision. It has a negative impact on health, like eating too much sugar or using tobacco. It can be well argued that it is a wasteful way to spend one's time, like playing disc golf. And it is mind numbing, just like watching Hannity or Hardball.
All of these choices are harmful to their practitioners. But should any of these decisions, however foolish, be illegal? Any harm they inflict is only upon their practitioners; not abstainers. No matter how much cherry-picked clinical data is used to argue otherwise, no one is harmed by another person's ignorance, poor health, or choice of hobbies.
I write from the perspective of someone who has shifted from conservatism to libertarianism; as such, I am at least passingly familiar with the conservative arguments against legalization, which reveal an inherent contradiction. Many who argue powerfully in favor of a constitutionally limited government recoil in horror at the notion that the state might be limited in its war powers — especially as they relate to the war on drugs. They brand Ron Paul as an outlandish, extremist character for daring to suggest that the government should mind its own business every now and then. And many conservatives who generally argue for the limitation of the power and scope of government could not more heartily endorse the drug war — lending tacit approval to the virtually limitless power it grants law enforcement.
It is not legalization but prohibition that should be considered outlandish and offensive. This should be apparent to the constitutionalists among us, who define the primary purpose of government as the protection of individual rights. They see, whether accurately or not, the US Constitution as written for the purpose of permanently enshrining the Jeffersonian ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence. "Federalist Number 5," ironically, cites an argument by British Queen Anne to contend that the union established by the Constitution would preserve our liberties:
An entire and perfect union will be the solid foundation of lasting peace: It will secure your religion, liberty, and property; remove the animosities amongst yourselves.… It must increase your strength, riches, and trade.… We most earnestly recommend to you calmness and unanimity in this great and weighty affair, that the union may be brought to a happy conclusion, being the only effectual way to secure our present and future happiness.
To the minarchist, the protection of these rights is the only legitimate function and purpose of government. Consider Bastiat's argument:
It is not because men have made laws that personality, liberty, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and property exist beforehand that men make laws.… [Law] is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.… So long as personal safety was ensured, so long as labor was free, and the fruits of labor secured against all unjust attacks, no one would have any difficulties to contend with in the State. (pp. 47–48)
In the Rothbardian tradition, government is the primary force undermining these rights.
When we look at the State, naked, as it were, we see that it is universally allowed, and even encouraged, to commit all the acts which even non-libertarians concede are reprehensible crimes.… Regardless of popular sanction, War is Mass Murder, Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery. (For A New Liberty, p. 31)
My purpose for writing is not to discuss, at any length, the differences between these approaches nor to argue for the superiority of one over another. Rather, consider the main thing these approaches have in common: the notion that individual, natural rights are of supreme importance. The goal of agorists and proponents of republican, constitutionally limited government have in common, at least, a nominal acceptance of the protection of liberty and property. Hopefully, they also share a recognition of the truth of that famous statement on the danger of government attributed to George Washington: "it is not reason … it is force."
In light of this, what contribution does the war on drugs make to the perpetuation of liberty and the protection of property? And at what costs?
The White House's drug-policy website reports a requested budget of $15.5 billion for 2011. For our trouble, we have seen drug-usage rates rise, even while prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders. In 2008, four of five arrests were for possession, not distribution. Two of five are for marijuana. Americans pay to support one-fourth of the world's prison population, largely because of the drug war. And yet violence flourishes, in part because the war on drugs causes drug prices to skyrocket. That the drug war is a colossal failure is scarcely debatable, especially in light of the UN's recent pronouncement to that effect. If the United Nations is calling a multiple-government power grab a disaster, then it is probably a train wreck of unprecedented proportions.
More significant, however, is the damage that this farcical war does to our life, liberty, and property.
The war on drugs, like any war, serves to continually expand the power of the state.
Recently, we have seen virtually limitless expansions of the power of police. They are granted the authority to obviously violate the Fourth Amendment whenever "'the exigencies of the situation' make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment." In Kentucky vs. King, the exigencies involved were the smell of marijuana and the sound of a flushing toilet. Woe to the man who has a stomach virus on a day when he burns yard trash!
Recent news reports about the abuse of civil-forfeiture laws have further diminished the credibility of the notion that the drug war is about the public good; it seems to be more about lining the public coffers.
Above all of this hovers the tragic story of Jose Guerena, murdered by police in a fruitless drug raid on his Arizona home and allowed to bleed to death, unaided. The police did find guns and body armor; probably rather common for a marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq. His murderers were recently cleared of any wrongdoing. Guerena is just another casualty in another senseless, immoral war; not on drugs, nor on some foreign enemy, but on liberty itself.
The war on drugs consistently leads to the violation of rights. It feeds the growth of government power, at a tremendous cost to the public, based on the spurious notion that government has the right or responsibility to dictate to private citizens their choice of recreational activities. It's time to legalize freedom.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.