Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Case Against Drug Prohibition

I read a Facebook post recently that criticized Ron Paul's stance on ending the (federal) war on drugs. The quote that stuck out to me was (fairly paraphrased):

"People don't have the right to use drugs. Drugs is a social problem, not a freedom issue. They hurt everyone around those using them, destroys societies, etc. This is about the destruction and the aftereffects on society."

He went on to cite an incident where a kid from his neighborhood got himself all coked out and killed a couple of people with his car.

Touché on the anecdote. People on drugs do commit criminal acts and do cause innocent people to suffer. But prohibition causes innocent people to suffer as well- and in similar ways. So, this is my case against drug prohibition. I'll ignore the huge economic benefits of legalization, the unconstitutionality of prohibition, the relative destructiveness of legal alcohol, and the philosophical arguments for letting adults make their own choices in our supposedly free society.

I disagree that legalization is not a freedom issue. We have this terrible habit of criminalizing whatever we find distasteful (smoking, certain foods, certain speech, firearms, etc.) and it's got to stop. All of those things used in the extreme can have negative effects. But in most instances, when these things do affect someone, they might merely be a nuisance or visually offensive- but not so much as to make victims out of the offended parties.

What's more, things that are potentially dangerous can, in fact, be used responsibly. This is where drug use becomes an issue of freedom. Even though drugs are abused by many, they can be used responsibly without injuring anyone, the user included. Such users do not deserve to be treated as criminals. But even though they haven't committed any crime against anyone, they will invariably be casualties of drug criminalization. The penalties can be harsh. If caught, they will be treated as felons and can potentially have their lives destroyed. They're ruined by the law, not the drugs. So I ask: who speaks up in defense of the responsible users, whose crime has no victim?

Almost no one loses sleep over punishing people for victimless crimes, though. Their case for prohibition usually rests on how drugs can harm totally innocent people. People can be dangerous and reckless in any number of ways when they're high, and that recklessness can end up hurting or even killing people. Examples might include a family torn apart by a son's drug abuse, or a child killed by someone who's high and behind the wheel. These certainly do happen, and nobody likes it. But there are innocent similarly people harmed by prohibition, too.

The family affected by drug abuse might just as easily be ruined when the son gets a mandatory minimum prison sentence for a minor drug infraction. Or when some innocent party's property is seized by the government because of trumped up charges from a prosecutor trying to make a name for himself. Or when the SWAT team comes on an anonymous tip and accidentally kills someone because they raided the wrong house (or otherwise acted recklessly, like shooting first and asking questions later, or killing people with flashbang grenades). Prohibition brings the unforgiving hand of the state into the situation, onto the heads of the innocent as well as the guilty. Who speaks up in defense of the innocents harmed by the government as a result of prohibition?

One doesn't need to have a relative killed or property stolen by the government to be an innocent victim, however. One could simply have a legitimate medicine denied or withheld from him because of political hysteria over drug abuse. Got a condition where you need marijuana and a vaporizer to relieve pain or regulate your appetite? Tough break. Your options are to lobby your legislature, quietly suffer, or find a black market. Which do you think is most effective? Innocent people go through this every day. They're in need of medication, but have little choice but to wait it out while politicians dither over the most politically acceptable way of distributing drugs they find appropriate. By means of red tape, greater expense, outright denial, and the threat of punishment for ignoring the law, drug prohibition continues to make victims out of those who want to use drugs for genuine medicinal purposes. That these people are relatively few in number makes no difference.

Who speaks up in defense of these and other victims of prohibition? If you ask the victims themselves, you'll find plenty of people. But those people, myself included, don't matter. We're ignored because we don't have enough political pull. And if there's one thing that trumps reason, liberty and justice, it's political pull. Clearly, there will be victims with or without prohibition. The difference is merely that the victims of prohibition are more politically acceptable.

It bothers me very much to know that some of the money I pay in taxes is used to prosecute people for victimless crimes; to buy the weapons and armor for local police who execute no-knock raids on my neighbors; to pay politicians to keep medicine out of reach of people who need it. But there's nothing I can do about that. It is the reality that has evolved from way back when people thought passing laws to control people's behavior was a good idea.

For those who still think that, I would like to recommend a "good prohibition"- a system that facilitates safe recreational drug use, helps people who have abuse problems, permits everyone access to the medicine they want, and exclusively punishes those who commit crimes against others....but there is no governing body that will punish only the guilty and spare the innocent. Government doesn't work that way, and our current drug war exhibits all the proof you could want. There can never be any such "good prohibition" as I just described; prohibition on the whole needs to end. For we only have two choices: Either we have a free society with some irresponsible people who are hard to control, or we have an unfree society with irresponsible people who are hard to control, plus an irresponsible government which nobody controls.

Which scenario scares you more?

Monday, May 2, 2011

On bin Laden's Death

After I heard of Osama bin Laden's death this morning, my first reaction was to shrug and ask, "So?" I was extremely surprised to find that overnight there were massive gatherings in the streets outside the White House and on college campuses to cheer about it. It was an embarrassing display of what passes for patriotism.

This, of course, changes nothing. Osama bin Laden is dead, but Americans still have to live with his legacy.

We still need to be patted down at airports by government agents. The government still tracks our every financial transaction. We still have security checkpoints inside our borders. Warrantless wiretaps still exist in the United States. Our government still detains people without trial or charge. And worst of all, we're still caught up in expensive open-ended wars which guarantee that our list of enemies will continue to grow. These things have become a permanent part of our lives as Americans- supposedly the most free people on earth.

In short, I don't have time for symbolic victories, no matter what the magnitude. Give me a call when something happens that's worth celebrating. In the meantime, it's the beginning of May, which means we're officially one third into 2011. Since about a third of my income goes straight out the door in taxes, I figure that the four months out of the year I have to spend working to fund the government is behind me now. Perhaps this is a day worth celebrating after all.