An Open Letter to Drug Warriors

Exclusive to STR

December 11, 2006

To 'Drug Warriors' and Supporters of the 'War on Drugs':

Kathryn Johnston of Atlanta, a poor black woman of Atlanta, was killed by three undercover police on November 21, 2006. Reports claim she had opened fire on them with a rusty revolver, wounding several, after the police entered her home in execution of a 'no-knock warrant.' Police claimed that an informant had bought drugs at Johnston's house from a man named 'Sam.' Reportedly, the only quantity of drugs found in the house after the pistol smoke dissipated was a small amount, 1.93 grams, of marijuana. The informant later claimed that the police had pressured him into lying about the drug purchase.

A literal maelstrom of debate over police tactics, use of paramilitary forces for raids, no-knock warrants, and other issues has erupted. As is often the case in America, the wrong sorts of questions are being asked. In this case, the concern is not whether the cops exercised their powers correctly, or whether they broke into the home under sufficient evidence, but whether they had the right in the first place to break into the private home of a citizen, and whether the drug war is a valid basis for such a usurpation of rights. Few seem to be using the affair to question the underlying drug war that gives rise to so many tragic cases like that of Kathryn Johnston ' cases that happen all too often in the United States and in other 'developed' nation-states with politicians pursuing similar policies.

Unfortunately, few seem to realize that the 'war on drugs' has no decent legs to stand on, and this open letter is an attempt to prove exactly that, or at least get the ball rolling on some genuinely respectable discussion, rather than the tired rehashing of hackneyed partisan bromides and shallow mainstream positions.

In short, the drug war holds no moral water and is undesirable on consequential grounds. The arguments favoring prohibition are legion, but they are usually some variation on a statist theme of paternalism, and on premises that the drug trade in and of itself breeds violent crime, corruption of neighborhoods, poverty, and so forth. These arguments all fall far short of the mark, miss the point, confound cause with effect, and generally leave cooler heads wondering what, exactly, the drug warriors have been smoking, snorting, or mainlining.

The contention that drugs are bad and must be made illegal for the sake of saving fellow men is widespread. It tends to be erected as a premise for most rails against drug use, so treating the attitude in some length is appropriate. Reduced to the proverbial freebase, the paternalists argue, in Puritanical pronouncements jacketed in mealy-mouthed verbiage, that people must be saved from the scourge of their own 'bad' decisions. The fact that this argument is regularly advanced without meeting indignant excoriations is unceasingly astonishing.

Making the pronouncement that the State ought to engage in programs to subvert the right of moral agency of the addicted, as by placing them against their will in programs to 'detoxify' them, is morally incomprehensible. President George W. Bush once said that "[w]e must reduce drug use for one great moral reason: Over time, drugs rob men, women, and children of their dignity and of their character. Illegal drugs are the enemies of ambition and hope. When we fight against drugs, we fight for the souls of our fellow Americans."

But Bush, not surprisingly, has it backwards. There is more than a little truth in saying that those are the exact reasons to oppose the 'war on drugs!' Libertarians assert that man is a moral agent, capable of weighing alternatives and striving towards ends, and that to deprive the individual of his ability and choice is to rob him of his essential humanity. The right of a man, as it is quipped, is to send himself to heaven or to hell in whatever way he chooses, without the meddling and nagging of paternalistic outside parties.

Perhaps more to the point, assuming that there is actually a well-defined psychological and physiological status called 'addiction' is gravely problematic. The reality is not so simple, and unfortunately anecdotal evidence suggests that the belief in an objective concept of 'addiction' is fairly widespread. To the contrary, at the very least, there is no hard-and-fast dichotomy separating the 'addicts' from the 'non-addicts,' as mainstream bickering on the issues seems to suggest. Furthermore, there is no way for an exterior party to objectively ascertain whether or not a given individual is or is not 'reasonable,' and what is or is not 'reasonable' is outside the ken of disciplines like psychology that are ostensibly about descriptive rather than prescriptive statements.

If there is no objective psychological or physiological concept of addiction, then the standard for defining addiction and committing the addicted to 'detox,' following them around and railing against their decisions, and so forth must logically be action. If addiction as a mental state or disposition is based on action, what sort and severity of action warrants compelling the drug user to detoxification against his will? A certain amount of consumption of a given drug of a certain potency during a given amount of time? As anybody who has read the least bit about drugs knows, dosage response for most drugs varies widely, in terms of severity, type, and duration of side effects. There is simply no way to rend from the paternalistic arguments the coloring of arbitrariness and subjectivity.

It is thus not altogether surprising, in this light of seeing addiction as a set of actions that the psychiatrist doesn't like, that it has been proposed that shopaholics ought to be pathologized next! And, what after that? As Lysander Spooner noted in 1875, '[t]he consequence would be, that everybody would be in prison for his or her vices. There would be no one left outside to lock the doors upon those within. In fact, courts enough could not be found to try the offenders, nor prisons enough built to hold them.' How disturbing that his warning has not been heeded and that since then the prohibition of drugs has continued quite robustly.

After all, the prisons in America are quite full. A recent study indicates that, though the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, she has 25% of the world's prisoners. Many countries renowned for their 'political prisons' are no match in pure numbers for the host of American citizens who are jailed for the political crime of possessing, trucking, or consuming a substance unapproved by the powers-that-be. To lock up such a large portion of a population for actions that are in and of themselves nonviolent is downright uncivilized and barbaric.

The costs to taxpayers of investigating, arresting, prosecuting, and harming drug 'criminals' are staggering. One conservative estimate pegs the amount of money that could be saved by ending prohibition to be around $37 billion. It costs American taxpayers over one billion U.S. dollars to fight the 'war on marijuana' alone. The more money that is required for the political parasites to fight their 'war on drugs,' the more is stolen from productive, peaceful citizens.

The consequentially undesirable effects of the war on drugs and of prohibition have been explained by far more capable writers. The illegality of the drugs, not the drugs themselves, is the source of most if not all of these undesirable effects. It is first rather apparent that the war on drugs kills, directly and indirectly, many people (by one estimate, as many as 15,000 ' 6,000 of those due to drug impurities, 5,000 to drug-related homicides, and 4,000 due to AIDS that may have been prevented by legalizing private needle and syringe exchange programs).

A literal litany of further arguments can be advanced against this 'war on drugs.' A common argument of the drug warriors is the claim that drugs cause violence, when in truth the violence among drug dealers is due to their exclusion from legitimate dispute resolution institutions. It is also rather apparent from data and from reasoning that the higher prices that result from the economics behind prohibition are cause for increased crime by junkies looking to finance their habits with shoplifting and theft. The drug war has been cause of both domestic civil liberties nightmares and such vile tactics as fumigation of coca fields in Colombia, which causes illness among Colombians and destroys the 'legitimate' crops of subsistence farmers. It is, further, common knowledge that the tactics of the drug war are blatantly racist.

And, finally, the drug war is doomed to 'lose,' despite all these less than wholesome tactics. That sums it up as well as can be. It is common knowledge, for instance, that it is easier for people under the legal drinking age to get marijuana than to get a case of beer. Drug use continues apace no matter how much money is thrown to the drug war winds, despite the fumigation of Colombian coca fields and U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the latter of which is now seeing bumper crops of opium. Drug use is here to say, and it is high time this truth is accounted for. As Samuel Edward Konkin III pointed out: 'The fundamental principle of counter-economics [such as black market drug trafficking] is to trade risk for profit.'

This is no weak-kneed call to merely 'Free Mary Jane,' shuffle around a few drugs in the Controlled Substances Act, loosen a few controls here and relax a few penalties there, or merely allow prescription weed for the 'seriously ill.' This is a 200-proof, firm, radical demand that the 'war on drugs' be ceased immediately; it is a demand that people would stop being treated as political prisoners for tweaking the noses of the politicians by possessing, selling, or consuming the 'wrong' plants and configurations of atoms; and it is a demand that people stop being 'detoxified' against their will. The theft of taxpayers' monies for a vile moral abomination, ravager of civil liberties, and wholly consequentially nightmarish leviathan must not continue unabated. Society depends on the death of daemon.

Laissez faire,

Thomas J. Van Wyk

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Thomas Van Wyk lives in southeast Wisconsin, where he is currently an undergraduate.  He operates a blog at viewing political, economic, and cultural concerns from a radical libertarian perspective.