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Social Issues Fri Sep 18 2009

Local Conservatives and Libertarians Debate the War on Drugs

On Wednesday night I moderated a lively debate on drug policy between the conservatives and libertarians who comprise the Chicago chapter of America's Future Foundation (AFF). I asked the question: "Is the War on Drugs good public policy?"

As you'd expect, there was disagreement between the two libertarians and three conservatives on the panel. I introduced the debate with a picture of the War on Drugs 40 years on.

The War on Drugs began in 1969 under Richard Nixon. He called drug abuse a "a serious national threat," and called for a national anti-drug policy at the federal level. He coined the "War on Drugs" in 1971 (NPR, Timeline: America's War on Drugs).

39 years later, drug arrests in the U.S. fell to 1.7 million in 2008 from a peak of more than 1.8 million in 2007 (Reason Magazine, Drug Arrests Headed Down?). Marijuana accounted for about half of all drug arrests, and 9 of 10 pot arrests were for possession, not sale or cultivation (Reason Magazine).

The United States spends $40 billion each year to shut down the supply of illegal drugs, and arrests 1.5 million each year for drug offenses. The Economist writes, "tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars" (The Economist, Failed States and Failed Policies: How to stop the drug wars).

The picture is worse overseas, particularly in Mexico. More than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed in Mexico since December 2006 (The Economist). Realizing old drug control policies weren't working, Mexico recently decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and crystal meth for personal use (Wall Street Journal, Mexico's Hopeless Drug War).

I had a chance today to ask one follow-up question to four of the five panelists, two from each side of the debate.

How would you change the execution of the War on Drugs to make it more effective? How would you play "hardball?"
Sheriff Mark Curran, Lake County: "I would secure the borders since almost 100% of the cocaine and heroin in this country comes from or through Mexico. We need to engage in tough trade negotiations with those problem countries that will not properly address the issues regarding the growth and supply of these substances beyond their borders."

How would removing the stigma of illegal drug use help society overall?
Ralph Conner, Local Legislation Manager, the Heartland Institute: "The stigma of illegal drug usage is only relevant in environments demanded for elected officials aspiring to lie their way into higher office, i.e. 'I used to smoke but never really inhaled.' Coke usage by upper-middle class corporate elites in socially acceptable venues or in private dens will continue unabated without regard to the whims of a nanny state or rules of decorum based upon an observed ethic of prohibition. In other words, fewer Americans care about any stinking stigma."

You said "the drug trade is a business like any other." How does pushing it underground make people safer?
Collin Corbett, President, Next Generation Republicans: "It's a misnomer that legalizing narcotics would make them less prevalent in society. Demand would decrease, but this would come at the expense of an increase in supply. More drugs on the street is not the answer. Our focus must be on keeping our children and families safe, which require national tools and resources to combat what has become an international business, while increasing our focus on reducing demand in the US."

If drugs were to be regulated and taxed like alcohol or cigarettes, what's to prevent the trade from staying underground?
Jennifer Koerner, Sudler Sotheby's: "I believe the reason that drugs, if legalized, would not remain underground is a simple economic one. There is a significant risk premium to doing business on the black market. A legitimate above board business could produce a safer, legal product for much less cost and risk to workers AND to users. Why would a user buy product that is potentially unsafe when a safer and more accessible product is available? In addition, any underground producers would be subject to arrest and imprisonment. The underground market would quickly realize that it no longer pays to be in the drug business."

To wit, conservatives want stricter enforcement of current laws, while libertarians want to put the kibosh on prohibition altogether. Both sides believe their ideas will promote a more stable society in which liberty thrives.

This is the sort of debate AFF lives for.

Join AFF for its next roundtable on torture. For details, sign up for AFF's mailing list.

 
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Conservative Christian / September 18, 2009 2:05 PM

More of the same old, myth and lie-based propagandist rhetoric coming from the prohibitionists. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the Law Enforcement officer is the one who wants to keep drugs illegal. Law enforcement LOVES drug prohibition because it gives them instant-access to screw with people they don't like for non-drug-related reasons (i.e., because they're black).

Recent studies show that an overwhelming majority of kids can get marijuana "within the hour" and they say that it is harder to get alcohol and tobacco than illegal drugs.

Use of marijuana will appear to increase after legalization simply because people will no longer be afraid to admit they use the stuff. Anyone who wants to use it is using it. The law does absolutely nothing to subvert use.

Prohibition does the following: Allows actual criminals to run the multi-billion-dollar drug industry in a violent and unregulated, untaxed fashion. Makes it easier for kids to get illegal drugs because dealers do not ask for ID. Makes it easier for dealers to upsell their customers hard, addictive and destructive drugs, which their customers would otherwise not be exposed to. Keeps millions of Americans feeling oppressed for doing something that harms no one but themselves, if even that. Confuses citizens when they realize the hypocrisy of the fact that alcohol and tobacco, two of the worst drugs known to man, are legal while the most benign and helpful plant known to mankind is kept illegal for absolutely no good reason whatsoever.

And as people begin to understand the truth - that marijuana was made illegal not to protect people, but to allow government to flex its racist muscle against mexicans, blacks, and other minorities, then you'll have an entire nation deeply questioning the moral and ethical quality of its leaders.

Even as a conservative Christian, I can see the light in this situation. It is beyond time to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana at the very least, and probably all illegal drugs. It's time for America to wake up and take control instead of burying our heads in the sand and allowing the Mexican Drug Cartels to take over the world.

Conor / September 18, 2009 8:12 PM

I think the most disconcerting part of this whole thing is the fact that Republicans seem unable to avoid the use of fear-based rhetoric. "Our focus must be on keeping our children and families safe." That kind of crap is only polarizing, and it implies that anyone that disagrees with his completely uninformed perspective hates safety and children. You're not a "Next Generation Republican," sir, you're exactly the same as everyone else.

I too am a "conservative Christian," and I find myself unable to argue with the reasoning of the libertarians. Clearly this kind of legislation would have to be extremely well planned by the best minds in the nation to keep it from having unintended consequences (creating the PhillipMorris of pot, for example) but it should still happen. We're wasting money.

It's also pathetic to see the Republicans acting like it is Mexico's fault that the drug trade exists. The business is only there because of the demand. As with many of Mexico's issues, the problem originates in the United States. Securing the borders is a joke. It's also pretty damn racist to say we should secure the borders south and not the borders north. What's the difference? The skin color of the people, of course.

More and more I see Republicans making themselves irrelevant and I see Libertarians providing sound reasoning and logic. I don't see Republicans coming back, but I do see Libertarians rising up.

Mike R / September 21, 2009 9:15 AM

Prohibition is the forfeiture of control. It is the complete inverse of regulation. As long as prohibition remains, it will be black market criminals who control and regulate drug trafficking and distribution. We could better protect our children, eliminate violent crime and actually turn a profit if we abolished prohibition and began to actually CONTROL drug trade.

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