Drug War, What Is It Good For?

Mike Gray's history of drug prohibition in America in his book Drug Crazy is gripping. How drug controls began and intensified is a torrent of bizarre and astonishing events which Gray skillfully relates. Fanaticism about drugs and society- and life-destroying errors have been the order of the day since the dawn of the past century.

Here is a typical piece of insanity, found in this 1918 New York Times editorial:

"Into well-known German brands of toothpaste... habit-forming drugs were to be introduced; at first a little, then more, and as the habit grew on the non-German victims, and his system craved ever greater quantities..." --

then the Huns would cut off the supply and the Yanks would be on their knees.

Or here is what Richmond Hobson, a Spanish-American war "hero" was saying on NBC's four hundred radio stations in 1928:

Suppose it were announced that there were more than a million lepers among our people. Think what a shock that announcement would produce!

Yet drug addiction is far more incurable than leprosy... more communicable... and is spreading like a moral and physical scourge.

The whole human race, though largely ignorant on this subject, is now in the midst of a life-and-death struggle with the deadliest foe that has ever menaced its future.

A lot of fraudulent drug scares took racist overtones; in one instance, as Gray writes with dry sarcasm, the US-Mexico border guards

began to notice alarming behavior among the indolent Mexicans. They would smoke this weed [marijuana] and it would make them crazy.

Wild, fearless, they would chop people up with axes and not remember a thing. It took four lawmen, they said, to subdue one of them.

Or, as physician-turned-bureaucrat Hamilton Wright was explaining to the Congress in the early 1900s, "Cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes." (What matters, of course, is not the "racism," but the falsity of the accusations.)

In a typical case, in 1919 the Treasury Department, looking for something to do, found a single "doctor" who "sold prescriptions for fifty cents apiece to any and all comers." (Do you see, by the way, how much money was worth in those days? 50¢ for a fake prescription, and the guy was raking it in.) That was enough eventually to take away the right of all real doctors to dispense narcotics to their patients.

Or, fast forwarding to the 1980s, Gray discusses the infamous "crack babies." The addicted women's "pathetic offspring, trembling in the glare of the incubator lights, so grievously damaged by their mothers' weakness, fueled a storm of outrage." Yet all the evidence for the seriousness of the crack-baby syndrome was manufactured. It turned out to be a non-issue. That did not stop the government from tightening the screws.

Studies that showed that drugs were not as awful as the propaganda made them appear were buried, as happened to, for example, the Shafer Commission's testimony in 1972, or neutralized by attacks on the credentials or motivation of their authors, which was the fate of the La Guardia report in 1945.

Let's draw some lessons from the Prohibition. Ludwig von Mises comments:

We may admire those who abstain from making gains they could reap in producing deadly weapons or hard liquor. However, their laudable conduct is a mere gesture without any practical effects.

Even if all entrepreneurs and capitalists were to follow their example, wars and dipsomania would not disappear.

As was the case in the precapitalistic ages, governments would produce the weapons in their own arsenals and drinkers would distill their own liquor.

Mises was right, as, for example, back in the old country during the Gorbachev alcohol prohibition started in 1985, my grandfather had a самогон-making machine in our apartment, which he used to make 100-proof liquor out of loads of caramel candy. (The candy itself was practically inedible, but that's what you get under socialism.) This was good, unadulterated stuff and most useful as currency to pay for things our family needed to get done. This was, I believe, illegal, but then so was pretty much every other type of private business. Yet I never paid much attention to government regulations, except insofar as it was prudent to do so.

Of course, America is full of enterprising individuals, and during its alcohol Prohibition no one would have to suffer the indignity of having to produce liquor for his own consumption.

Thankfully, vast black market empires (and here the military metaphor is legitimate) were created to supply Americans with alcohol. Gray writes:

While a speedboat full of Canadian whiskey might turn a tidy little profit, it made no dent in the thirst of fifty million drinkers.

Supplying thousands of clandestine taverns on a daily basis called for organization, manpower, fleets of trucks, breweries, distilleries, warehouses -- all the components of major corporations -- and since they were dealing with contraband, they could hire only criminals.

This simple dictate brought together thousands of muscle men, cutthroats, gamblers, and con artists who otherwise would have never spoken with one another, and welded them into a panoply of efficient law-breaking machines.

It was this demand for integrated operations that would create the crime syndicate as we know it today.

The drug prohibition has created the same effect.

A closely related consequence is police corruption. Our author is not stingy with examples:

In one brief period over twenty officers from Brooklyn's Seventy-fifth Precinct were implicated in drug dealing, gunrunning, and murder.

In neighboring Brownsville, ten officers from Seventy-third were tagged with running their own drug ring.

In the Thirtieth up in Harlem -- "Dirty Thirty" -- two dozen officers were charged with shaking down dealers and selling the drugs themselves.

Investigators said at least ten of the seventy-five New York precincts may be involved.

In Los Angeles, one of the sheriff's elite narcotics squads went down in flames when its members were videotaped stealing drug money from a motel room. No sooner was this team dispatched to jail than three deputies from another squad were busted with over a million dollars they shook out of dealers and money launderers.

The similarities with the alcohol prohibition are striking:

By 1929, one of four federal agents had been dismissed for charges ranging from bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and embezzlement to drinking the evidence and submission of false reports.

Gray points out the obvious fact that

The illegal transfer of goods between two people who are in agreement is a tough act to interrupt.

With a murder, the victim's family demands justice; with a robbery, the victims themselves demand justice. The rapist, the embezzler, the con artist, all have people chasing them.

But when somebody buys a contraband from a willing seller, there's nobody to call the cops.

So in that old phrase, drug sales are "victimless crimes." It can be objected right away that the buyer harms himself, but the point stands: it is a voluntarily entered into contract, as a result of which both parties are better off, as far as they see it at that very moment. The consequence is that cops conduct illegal searches and seizures, frame people, and commit perjuries to get convictions. In order to match the firepower of the drug dealers, many police departments have become militarized. Property forfeiture, a grotesque development of the drug war, a form of legalized theft, and a manifestation of arbitrary power that is not even veiled in any sort appeal to "public interest," is now an acceptable form of the income for many police departments. Is this sort of corruption of no import? Or is it, too, part of the acceptable costs of war?

Although drug prohibition is responsible for a sharp increase in violence in the US, the mayhem that accompanied the career of the Columbian drug producer Pablo Escobar is particularly stunning. When we talk of drug "war," by "war" we usually mean "repression." In Columbia there was a real war.

It's probably impossible for most Americans to grasp what the average Colombian went through in this period [the 80s–90s], but try to imagine a World Trade Center bombing every couple of days. ...

The horrifying ten-year struggle with Escobar and the Ochoas had damaged the country in ways that would endure for a generation. The best judges, the most incorruptible politicians, the most aggressive journalists, the bravest army officers had all been sacrificed to the war on drugs. Most of the survivors were thoroughly compromised. ...

And so, after twenty years of bloody conflict, billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of lives, one of the Western's Hemisphere's oldest democracies has been transformed into a pariah nation with its leaders on the watch list along with Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein -- our own private Afghanistan.

Despite all this, of course, drugs are still widely available. Gray recounts that during a speech,

To emphasize the danger America was facing, the president [George H.W. Bush] held up a small plastic bag. "This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago by Drug Enforcement Agents in a park just across the street from the White House." It was a chilling reminder of how this insidious plague touched everyone.

But an old-time Chicago newsman like Studs Terkel would note the larger irony. After a seventy-year battle against illegal narcotics, it was now possible to walk out the front door of the White House and do a drug deal across the street.

Is there any difference between alcohol and narcotic drugs that would make the parallels between the alcohol and drug prohibitions suspect? The similarities are obvious: both cause pleasure; both can ruin one's life if abused; both come in hard and soft forms.

The only difference that I can think of is that alcohol has been around for thousands of years, while mass drug consumption is a relatively recent phenomenon. One consequence of this is that there exists in every country in the world a traditional, stable, and for the most part privately maintained culture of drinking that serves to maximize the pleasures of consuming alcoholic beverages and to minimize the costs of it.

In the US beer is king; every nation has a favorite type of booze. But there are established procedures, if not always perfect ones, of regulating almost every aspect of drinking. There are few such procedures for dealing with recreational drug use. Because of the prohibition they simply have not been allowed to develop.

And this is tragic, because an unstifled by the government drug culture would evolve into something that would permit people to enjoy their high at the least possible cost in terms of the negative consequences of drug use for health, personal savings, relationships, careers, and so on.

This is my prediction, but I believe that if all drug production and consumption were legalized, the most popular recreational drugs that would be used by the majority of the those that would take drugs at all would be not crack cocaine or heroin but the equivalent of something like beer: causing mild pleasure, lifting the mood, and otherwise being utterly harmless. Do such drugs exist now? I am not an expert, but if they don't, they will be created. Beer, after all, is a large industry. So will be the beer-like drugs.

Further, they will be used only sometimes, such as on Friday night parties. There will be abuse, but probably very little, certainly no more than alcohol is abused today. Drug abuse after the liberalization will not be a significant social problem, just as it was not a social problem in the US before the drug prohibition. According to Gray, for example:

At the turn of the century the typical American addict was a middle-aged southern white woman strung out on laudanum (an opium-alcohol mix), and the highest credible estimates put the number of U.S. addicts at about three people in a thousand.

Morphine, cocaine, and heroin were used in over-the-counter medicines as painkillers:

All the leading authorities now agree that addiction peaked around 1900, followed by a steady drop. The reason was simple common sense coupled with growing awareness

of the possibility of addiction. According to one report issued in 1920,

a very large proportion of the users of opiate drugs were respectable hard-working individuals in all walks of life, and that only about 18 percent could in any way be considered as belonging to the underworld.

And only a portion of those 0.054% were criminals because of their drug habit. Without the prohibition, the drug prices would come down and weaken the incentives for poor addicts to steal even further.

The law-and-order conservatives do not listen to any of this, of course. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The only solution they come up with is more repression. Judge Judy, of TV fame, has famously called for death to drug users.

I wonder if she's gone far enough. If you've read James Clavell's Shogun, you know that, according to the author, the punishment that the Japanese authorities imposed for arson was death not only to the perpetrator but to his family, as well (which, though wicked, could be at least understood, because Japanese houses were so flimsy and so close to one another that a small fire could destroy a whole city). Give her time, and Judge Judy and her conservative brothers-in-arms will call for the execution of drug users' families, as well. They are the avenging angels against the unrepentant sinners.

Or perhaps there is an impulse here to "cleanse the world" from the "impure." We've had such ideologies before, and they have much in common with our present red-state fascism. Gray explains:

Back in 1900, the country had looked upon addicts as unfortunate citizens with a medical problem. By 1920, they had become "drug fiends," twisted, immoral, untrustworthy. Like vampires, they infected everything they touched.

There was no room for compassion here. The only way to get rid of a vampire is to drive a stake through his heart.

Perhaps it is this crazy image that is the motivation behind Judge Judy's delirium. And perhaps our Lord's words that "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" are the cure.

In order for the drug war to end, drug production and consumption must be made legal. To what extent? Some suggest allowing doctors to prescribe any narcotic drug they want. I would go further than that. All drugs should be available to adults without a prescription. (As for children, you don't see them getting drunk now; you won't see them getting high either.)

To be more precise, and to extend Hans-Hermann Hoppe's reduction to drugs, drug policy should be made not by the state but by individual private property owners. There is not a single person in the US who does not know the dangers of drug abuse. That should be enough.

Do not fear, then, relaxing these ruthless controls from above and letting people decide for themselves what to consume. It will not be a disaster; there will be no chaos; on the contrary, it will feel like the whole society is getting out of jail, where it was tormented "for its own good."

I even mean this literally, since 25% of all inmates in federal and state prisons are there for drug offenses, a total of around 352,000 as of 2003; and over 64% of federal prisoners are drugs offenders, as well. The United States then may no longer hold the dubious honor of leading the world in the number of prisoners.

Anyone who has ever been confined involuntarily knows how great freedom feels. Let it ring, and have trust in it if not to make heaven on earth, then at least to avoid making hell on it. You will find that absent central designs, purely voluntarily, society will organize itself in remarkable, unforeseen, and highly successful ways.

June 16, 2006

Back to Homepage