By: Jason Mayes
Suppose you’re aware that John possesses certain harmful substances which he will take into his body. You’re concerned about the potential consequences of his behavior; he might become addicted, ruin his life. He might alienate and hurt the people who love him. Perhaps he already has.
Unwilling to tolerate his self-destructive behavior, you decide to abduct him at gunpoint and lock him in your basement. Would your action be acceptable?
I’m willing to bet you said no. And most people would say the same. It seems like a matter of commonsense morality that barring self-defense from a direct threat, pointing guns at people and locking them in basements “for their own good” isn’t something that’s usually okay to do to each other.
If I think you’re fat, eat too many cheeseburgers, and you’re going to die young from heart disease, leaving your grieving loved ones behind, it’s still not morally okay for me to point a gun at you, lock you in my basement, and force you to go on a diet.
If I think your lifestyle is unhealthy or destructive, I can try to persuade you to change or get help, but I don’t get to force you to do what I’ve decided is best for you.
Yet, despite these commonsense moral intuitions, the above is precisely what the government does in its multi-trillion dollar, frequently fourth amendment violating, prison crowding “war on drugs” when men with guns take people away if they’re caught in possession of certain substances. Most people would reject the moral right of ordinary people to do this, yet think something changes when men with badges do it. Why?
Perhaps you think a government has authority that makes it okay for it do things that would be considered wrong if you or I did them, but it’s not clear that “authority” (however we define authority and if indeed they have it) changes anything about the moral situation. We don’t ordinarily think that people in authority are somehow above the moral rules of right and wrong we apply to ordinary citizens.
Nor does it seem that a lack of legal authority is what we find troubling about private individuals pointing guns at people and abducting them “for their own good” or even a supposed social good. Instead, what seems troubling is that it’s wrong to treat people this way, even when they’re doing stupid things. That’s not the way that we get people to stop doing things we think are wrong or harmful. The only reason we might consider it acceptable to threaten someone with a gun is self-defense. Pointing guns at people, locking people up, beating people up, taking their property, or invading their homes to see if they have things we don’t like are not things that are thought to be okay to do in ordinary circumstances.
Now, “ordinary circumstances” may be the rub. Perhaps you agree with me that ordinarily, these actions would be wrong. But you believe that drugs are so evil and the harm done so great that our usual moral presumptions must be overruled. This is what might be called a “lifeboat” scenario where the usual social rules don’t apply. Perhaps a world where adults are allowed to take whatever they want into their own bodies would lead to so much trouble that even though the above is usually morally correct, in this case, what usually seems wrong is the right thing to do. But that seems to be some pretty extreme hyperbolic knee-buckling. It’s far from the reality of the world we lived in before drug prohibition. The proposal to end prohibition and legalize or decriminalize drugs is not a venture into uncharted territory. We’ve already lived in that world and contrary to drug warrior fear-mongering, the sky was not falling.
One thing that was a big part of that world, however, was racism. As it turns out, drug prohibition was racist in origin. The purpose was to create an excuse to target black people even though the rate of drug use was no higher among black people than among white people. The same thing happened with the Anti-Opium Act of 1909, which was meant to target the Chinese.
According to journalist Dan Baum, writing for Harper’s Magazine, John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon’s Domestic Affairs Adviser and co-conspirator in the Watergate scandal, admitted the purpose of drug prohibition this way:
“At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. ‘You want to know what this was really all about?’ he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’”
Now, even if drug prohibition is racist in origin, that doesn’t by itself prove that legalizing drugs is a good idea. Perhaps the motivations were terrible but drugs still ought to be prohibited. This is where it’s helpful to have some understanding of economics. Whether there is more or less crime, greater or fewer problems under drug prohibition than without it, is an empirical question that can’t be answered by intuition alone. It requires data and some knowledge of the social sciences.
The most basic law of economics tells us that wherever there is high enough demand for a product or service, there will be a supplier. Prohibition is not a magic wand that changes that basic reality. It only shifts the supply from legally legitimate markets in which there exists contracts and legal recourse to settle disputes, to illicit black markets in which cartels supply the product and disputes are usually settled with violence. Drugs, like alcohol during prohibition, are made more potent, more addictive, and are adulterated with unknown or dangerous substances.
The question we have to ask ourselves is which market do we want to supply the demand?
During alcohol prohibition, alcohol was supplied by the mob, led by thugs like Al Capone, Bugs Moran, and others, who capitalized on the illicit market created by prohibition. The result was a major increase in violent crime and corruption of law enforcement officials who stood to profit from bribery. The same is true of today’s law enforcement officials under drug prohibition.
The government’s 1920s “war on alcohol” wasn’t “won” by fanatical crusaders like anti-drug warrior Jeff Sessions doubling down, throwing more money at it; issuing mandatory minimums and crowding prisons with alcohol consumers. Instead the eighteenth amendment was repealed and prohibition was ended. That shifted the supply back to legitimate markets. As a result, the black market for alcohol was made far less profitable, as it was no longer the primary or only source of the supply.
Drug prohibition is no different from alcohol prohibition in this way. The economics are the same. The consequences are very similar.
It should be noted that it was thought necessary to amend the constitution to authorize the government to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol, as the powers assumed were not granted by article 1, section 8 of the constitution. No such amendment was proposed or ratified to authorize drug prohibition. And not only were these substances now prohibited, but a new federal police department, not authorized by the constitution — the Drug Enforcement Administration, which inevitably violates the fourth amendment to the Bill of Rights — was created to enforce it.
It’s time to recognize that the government’s “war on drugs” is an extremely costly, unconstitutional failure that has cost lives, money, and personal liberty. The same rules of conduct that we apply to private individuals apply to people with suits, ties, and badges. There’s no clear reason why any election or majority should grant any right to play by different moral rules than the rest of us. If I don’t have a right to use force to make people behave the way I think they should, neither do the people who make up the government. It’s time to end the new prohibition and replace mass incarceration of addicts with treatment and rehabilitation.