For decades, the United States have been waging a war on drugs, both within its borders and throughout Central America. This struggle has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of law enforcements officers and civilians while drug use in America has not declined. So what’s the point?
On his Fox Business Network show last week, John Stossel asked precisely that question, noting that whenever the war appears to be successful, as it has been in Colombia, the problem simply moves elsewhere, to Bolivia and Mexico, where cartels up to this very day are engaged in fierce confrontations with police. Meanwhile, drugs are still readily available on America’s streets. In fact, the country is funding both sides of the war, with the government spending almost the exact amount on law enforcement and foreign aid as American citizens buy in drugs.
By any standard then, the war on drugs is a failure. What’s more though, it’s illegitimate.
A just government should not be allowed to decide what products its citizens can and cannot consume or enjoy. It is not the government’s responsibility to protect people against themselves. Proponents of strict drug laws may argue that drug use poses a threat to the community, because people on drugs, like people who are intoxicated with alcohol, have less control over their behavior and might indeed act erratically and aggressively. They further allege that drug use would undoubtedly rise when drug laws are loosened.
Both claims are demonstrably false. The most popular drugs, including marijuana and ecstasy, do not make people more aggressive. To the contrary. Drug addiction and abuse are serious problems but hardly more so than alcohol addiction and abuse. It makes no sense to criminalize the one and control the other with sensible laws, like not allowing drunk and disorderly conduct and not allowing drunks to drive.
As for the fear that drug use would increase if it were legalized; there is no evidence to support this claim. No matter the stereotypes, the one country that has practically legalized soft drugs, the Netherlands, has proven that the contrary is true. The number of teens and young adult who have experimented with drugs in the Netherlands pales in comparison with American statistics.
The Dutch drug policy has not been able to put a stop to related crime altogether but the legalization of certain kinds of drugs is not to blame here. Rather, the problem lies in the ambiguity of Dutch drug laws. While people are allowed to buy and use drugs in limited quantities, it remains illegal for sellers to purchase them — forcing them to resort to crime.
The Dutch tolerance of drug use was originally born out of the libertarian conviction that it is not the government’s place to try to condition its population. People should be allowed smoke, drink alcohol and use drugs, even if it’s bad for their health.
In the American approach, this notion is altogether lacking. Instead, unyielding drug laws, which include mandatory sentences for even the slightest of offenses, are driven by fear and ignorance and the ambitions of lawmakers who want to be considered tough on drugs.
The result is something of a police state as could be seen in John Stossel’s show last Thursday. Regularly, all across the country, SWAT teams barge into peoples’ houses on the suspicion of drug possession, arresting ordinary people, even parents, because they had the audacity to smoke pot in the privacy of their own homes. Teenagers who try marijuana once could be ruined for life. Every day, more people are arrested in the United States on drug charges than all other crimes combined. In 2008, 1.5 million Americans were arrested for drug offenses. 500,000 were imprisoned. Marijuana constitutes almost half of all drug arrests. So naturally Stossel concludes that, “the drug laws do more damage than the drugs.”
No matter the futility of the war on drugs; no matter the thousands of deaths and lives ruined; no matter the fact that law enforcement is becoming evermore brutal in its pursuits and that America is slowly turning into a prison nation because of its prejudice, the question ultimately boils down to one of civil liberties. As Stossel put it, “Either we own our body or we don’t.” It is on this argument that the fight against those who favor government control in this regard should be waged and won.