Former Drug Czar John Walters: Dumber Than You May Think

In a new Weekly Standard essay, former drug czar John P. Walters explains why the idea of legalizing drugs is "Dumber Than You May Think." And not only dumb. "Irresponsible talk of legalization weakens public resolve against use and addiction," he warns. "It attacks the moral clarity that supports responsible behavior and the strength of key institutions. Talk of legalization today has a real cost to our families and families in other places. The best remedy would be some thoughtful reflection on the drug problem and what we say about it."

Walters does not lead by example. He claims, predictably, that repealing prohibition would cause a surge in addiction, which is not necessarily true and in any case hardly proves that prohibition is morally justified or worth its cost. His main argument seems to be that opposing the war on drugs is irresponsible because it undermines the war on drugs, which has been much more successful than commonly acknowledged. Illegal drug use has declined since 1979, he says, thanks to "tougher laws, popular disapproval of drug use, and powerful demand reduction measures" as well as "successful attacks on supply​."

While survey data do indicate that illegal drug use is less common today than it was in 1979, Walters presents no evidence that government policy is responsible for this trend. Marijuana use, for example, started falling in 1980, before Ronald Reagan took office and well before his ramped-up war on drugs could possibly have had an impact. Contrary to Walters' claim that "successful attacks on supply" have reduced cocaine use (which peaked around 1985), in  2007 he himself had to concede that, despite the much-ballyhooed Plan Colombia, cocaine prices were down while purity was up. Walters brags about "the successful attack on meth production in the United States," which mostly has served to consolidate the Mexican cartels' domination of the market, with no discernible impact on consumption (which was falling before the meth crackdown). And if supply reduction has been successful in discouraging marijuana use, why are Walters and other drug warriors constantly complaining that pot today is so much stronger than it used to be? By their lights, that surely is not a sign of success. More generally, the economics of the black market—the multiplicity of potential sources and smuggling routes, the high ratio of retail prices to production costs, and the fact that almost all of a drug's value is added after it is broken down into relatively small packages—doom supply reduction as a long-term strategy. 

But let's say Walters is right that beefed-up enforcement has reduced drug consumption. Why is that necessarily a good thing? Like all orthodox drug warriors, Walters equates use with abuse, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to be that stupid. Whatever your views about the propriety of pharmacological paternalism, it surely matters whether the decline in drug use has been mainly among casual pot smokers and coke sniffers rather than homeless heroin addicts and emaciated speed freaks. From a utilitarian perspective, the measure of success should be a net reduction in harm, including the harm caused by prohibition itself (which is not doing any favors for heroin addicts and speed freaks). Preventing drug use that would have enhanced people's lives undermines that goal. 

As far as prohibition-related harm goes, Walters concedes that "the cartels and violent gangs gain money from the drug trade" but dismisses that point as unimportant, since "they engage in the full range of criminal activities​." He likewise is unimpressed by the boost that alcohol prohibition gave to organized crime in the United States, because "criminal organizations existed before and after prohibition." In other words, as long as criminals exist, we might as well give them new profit opportunities—and new reasons for violence of the sort that has killed 50,000 or so people in Mexico since the end of 2006—by creating black markets. Walters presumably would have a similar response to the concern that prohibition fosters official corruption: As long as corruption exists, why not have more of it? Likewise, since police are always eager for excuses to override people's civil liberties, why not give them a mission to break up consensual activities that everyone involved wants to keep private? And since drug use is potentially dangerous, why not make it more dangerous by forcing consumers into a violent black market where they have to contend with uscrupulous sellers, unreliable quality, and unpredictable doses while risking arrest for behavior that violates no one's rights? Contrary to Walters' claim that drugs "victimize" people, I have never seen a joint beat the crap out of anyone; I cannot say the same about cops.

Speaking of which, Walters never addresses the morality of using force to stop people from consuming substances that might do them harm, except to suggest that the half a million or so drug offenders behind bars, and the millions more arrested and imprisoned over the years, pretty much had it coming. "With rare exceptions," he says, "the criminal justice system is not convicting the innocent." Granted that most people convicted of drug offenses really did commit drug offenses, the question remains: Is this a legitimate use of the criminal justice system? Is it just to punish people for engaging in peaceful, voluntary exchanges with other adults, simply because the transactions involve products that offend politicians? Walters is not interested in such questions. Instead he audaciously proclaims that drug prohibition, which draws utterly arbitrary distinctions between tolerable and intolerable intoxicants, must be maintained for the sake of "moral clarity."

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  • ||

    Every time I hear about some moronic drug warrior spewing this kind of nonsense, I want to shove a copy of Saying Yes up their ass.

  • Number 2||

    Let them speak. Slowly but surely, the public is catching on to the inanity of their arguments.

  • ||

    Note I didn't say shove it down their throat. ;)

  • BoscoH||

    Except that the guy is talking out his ass.

  • califernian||

    I don't think so

  • Rich||

    His main argument seems to be that opposing the war on drugs is irresponsible because it undermines the war on drugs

    IOW, "Fuck you, that's why!"

  • Jerryskids||

    Well, suppose someone you know said, 'Crack and heroin and meth are great, and I am going to give them to my brothers and sisters, my children and my granndchildren.' If you find that statement absurd, irresponsible, or obscene, then at some level you appreciate that drugs cannot be accepted in civilized society. Those who talk of legalization do not speak about giving drugs to their families, of course; they seem to expect drugs to victimize someone elses family.

    Try substituting something else for "crack and heroin and meth" in that statement - like say "my dick". Still absurd, irresponsible, or obscene - still not a good reason to say it's unacceptable in a civilized society.

    (Well, maybe not in my specific case - but you know what I mean.)

  • Pip||

    Well, suppose someone junkie/crackhead/meth addict you know said, 'Crack and heroin and meth are great, and I am going to give them to my brothers and sisters, my children and my grandchildren.' If you find that statement absurd, irresponsible, or obscene, as of yet, never to have been uttered in all of human history then at some level you appreciate that drugwarriors cannot be accepted in civilized society.

  • T||

    You presume that it's humanly possible to be dumber than I think John Walters is. If he was dumber than I think he is, he couldn't feed himself.

  • fried wylie||

    because "criminal organizations existed before and after prohibition."

    Real nice work on that by the way, A Century Of Law Enforcement.

  • Aresen||

    With the Asset Forefeiture Laws, it appears that law enforcement is less interested in eradicating crime than in getting a piece of the action.

  • WarrenT||

    What?

  • wareagle||

    it's a clear argument - forfeiture means cars, boats, and a hell of a lot of other property and money. The govt makes no distinction between money a dealer made through that business and money from enterprises that may have been totally above board. That's what.

  • WarrenT||

    Cops would never do this.

  • wareagle||

    you must be new here.

  • Aresen||

    No.

    He's being sarcastic here.

    We need a sarcastic bold font option.

  • Hugh Akston||

    So it looks like Big Government really is becoming the next major religion in the United States.

    -Farfetched claims of miraculous results

    -Adherents who rely on faith even when the evidence wholly contradicts their beliefs.

    -Claims of a benevolent peaceful humanitarian mission constantly undermined by the brutality carried out in its name.

    -Prayers for change totally ignored by the deities.

    Did I miss anything?

  • ||

    Clergy that talk of benevolence and equality who then live high off the tithes (taxes) of the adherents who they consider to be plebeian scum

  • ||

    Yes, an anarchist are really just a type of statist.

  • Aresen||

    You missed the belief in "The Good Tsar" who would put everything right if it weren't for those opposing him.

  • R C Dean||

    Didn't he just admit that his war on drugs isn't having any affect on the criminal cartels that are supposedly its main target?

  • ||

    Didn't he essentially declare the WoD over?

  • Pip||

    All the wars are over now. Praise be to Obama!

  • Number 2||

    "And if supply reduction has been successful in discouraging marijuana use, why are Walters and other drug warriors constantly complaining that pot today is so much stronger than it used to be?"

    I read these comments and hear once again the standard operating procedure followed by supporters of any government program: to applaud the program as an absolute, unqualified, unalloyed success while simultaneously warning that notwithstanding the program's unqualified success, the evil that the program was meant to combat is somehow worse than ever, requiring even more resources to be dedicated to the program.

  • Aresen||

    Essentially they are no different than the Stalinists who would continuously report the smashing of yet another "bourgeois conspiracy" and similtaneously warn that "the Enemies of the People" were stronger than ever.

  • daveInAustin||

    With this drug warrior arithmetic, if I go from drinking a liter of beer every day, to a half liter of whiskey, I've reduced my alcohol consumption by 50%.

    In one sentence they say "look the WOD is working, consumption is down". In the next they say "look purities are up the WOD needs even more resources".

  • Aresen||

    Faith. The anti establishment drug of choice for 12,000 years.

  • tarran||

    I saw a chinaman kissing a white woman outside my work today. She was kissing him back.

    Clearly we need to keep the drug laws in place to discourage that sort of thing. ... with moral clarity.

  • Aresen||

    Congratulations, you have just restated the core argument behind Emily Murphy's notorious The Black Candle.

  • AlmightyJB||

    I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's

  • wareagle||

    his hair was perfect.

  • Sigivald||

    Contrary to Walters' claim that "successful attacks on supply" have reduced cocaine use (which peaked around 1985), in 2007 he himself had to concede that, despite the much-ballyhooed Plan Colombia, cocaine prices were down while purity was up.

    Supply and demand suggests that prices going down is at least as likely to mean that demand is down, and thus usage.

    Likewise lower demand and pricing would explain higher purity - no great incentive to cut it.

    He might be right, he might be wrong, but we can't tell from "price and purity" numbers alone.

    (He's wrong in his general position, in any case.)

  • Pip||

    That's an interesting perspective.

  • ChrisO||

    If drugs were legal, where would police and politicians get their under-the-table funding from? Think of their children!

  • ||

    "Talk of legalization today has a real cost to our families and families in other places. "

    If talk has a real cost to our families, we need to criminalize anti-drug war talk for the children. Exceptions to the first amendment can be made for the children for christ's sake.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Former Drug Czar John Walters: Dumber Than You May Think


    Impossible. There is no floor to how dumb government bureaucrats can be.
  • AlmightyJB||

    Yeah, I don't think there is anything I could hear that would shock me anymore.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Based solely on their ability to identify cause-and-effect relationships, I'd have to say that the intelligence of drug warriors approaches zero. How can IQ be less than that? That would seem to be the floor, but the maddening idiocy of drug warriors makes one wonder whether negative IQ is possible.

  • califernian||

    ^THIS

    perfectly stated

  • Brian from Texas||

    Far from being addicts and potheads, some of the most vocal anti-prohibition activists I've met are teetotalers who have never done drugs, illegal or otherwise, in their lives.

  • ||

    Yep, I am one. I tried pot back in 81?,82? and hated it. I never touch the stuffor any other drug ( vodka, rum, brandy, moonshine, and good scotch doesnt count) , but it is clear as hell to me that the war on drugs is one of the biggest crimes the government has perpetrated on the american people ever.

    Every evening I sit here at the table while supper cooks and read on the laptop. My wife crochets with the tv on. She loves stupid cop shows, so every evening I can overhear tv cops committing one heinous crime after another in full view of the american people. After so much propaganda, the average american probably does think it is a good thing when cops drive their car through the side of a 'suspects' house, jumps out and beats the living shit out of him before getting a confession. War on drugs? No big deal either, they had it coming.

  • wareagle||

    considering that govt is the largest participant in legal vice - tobacco and alcohol - its concern about the moral state of the nation rings hollow.

  • CatoTheElder||

    ... and gambling.

    They tried prostitution and pornography, but went bankrupt running whorehouses and porn production after the IRS took over.

  • Pip||

    The greatest trick the federal government ever pulled was to convince the world that responsible drug use didn't exist.

  • Aresen||

    Suthenboy|5.3.12 @ 7:15PM|#

    Yep, I am one. I tried pot back in 81?,82? and hated it. I never touch the stuffor any other drug

    I am so sorry to hear how you have wasted your life.

    ;P

  • AlmightyJB||

    "moral clarity"

    So much easier to obtain than actual clarity.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Ironic that LSD could actually help bring actual clarity. Oh well. Stuck on stupid it is.

  • wareagle||

    "Irresponsible talk of legalization weakens public resolve against use and addiction,"

    in other words: if the other side is given the ability to speak its piece, our fraudulent scare tactics will not be nearly as effective, and people will realize there are options other than prohibition and alcoholism.

  • wareagle||

    "Irresponsible talk of legalization weakens public resolve against use and addiction,"

    in other words: if the other side is given the ability to speak its piece, our fraudulent scare tactics will not be nearly as effective, and people will realize there are options other than prohibition and alcoholism.

  • SIV||

    While survey data do indicate that illegal drug use is less common today than it was in 1979

    It sure is.

  • Mike Laursen||

    What a year to pick to begin his time frame. As someone who graduated from high school in 1979, I don't see how the amount of drug use could have gone anywhere but down.

  • sloopyinca||

    On Topic: The Feds go after dispensaries in Santa Barbara. And yes, they filed asset forfeiture notices against them. Because nothing says "we can stop the flow of drugs" like seizing the property of people that work for non-profits. Of course, that property in Santa Barbara is among the most valuable in the nation, so we can rest assured our Fed overlords will be taking some sweet-ass vacations soon.

    Fucking scum.

  • IceTrey||

    The drug war should end for one simple reason. As a free human being no one has the right to tell me what to do as long as my actions do not involve the initiatory use of force.

  • ||

    One would think that the right to put whatever you want into your own body would be a fundamental act of self-ownership.

  • DonTaylor||

    It is obvious that a teenager should be put in prison for simply having an illegal drug, or having a legal drug without a prescription. A long prison term will provide him with a drug free environment and teach him valuable skills that will allow him to be a male prostitute, drug dealer or other criminal as well as a network of pimps and other criminals to work for because his part time job at McDonalds doesn't pay for the rent, but fortunately he will have other criminal room mates who will keep him informed of lucrative after hours employment.

    If it is my duty to be drafted and killed for my country, surely it is my duty serve in prison so someone else says NO to drugs.

  • TingoZing||

    Dude is clearly dumb as the day is long.

    www.Privacy-Dudes.tk

  • Aresen||

    No, anon-bot. He's been dumber MUCH longer than that.

  • ||

    For a moment I thought John Waters was drug czar.

    Damn.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    The decades of decline coincide with tougher laws

    At least he has the intelligence to not claim that correlation = causation.

    Legalization advocates typically ignore the science.

    Still waiting for the 21st Amendment to be repealed, which was in turn a repeal of the 18th Amendment.

    America's first cocaine epidemic occurred in the late 19th century, when there were no laws restricting the sale or use of the drug. That epidemic led to some of the first drug laws, and the epidemic subsided.

    Shame he doesn't give any numbers for this so-called 'epidemic.' Bigger shame that he fails to mention that these anti-cocaine laws were sold on the pretense that it turned Black men in superhumans who could shrug off .22 rounds and gave them the unmitigated gall to desire White women.

    the criminal justice system is not convicting the innocent.

    Thaddeus Jimenez would respectfully disagree.

    Even some foreign leaders have joined in claiming that violent groups in Latin America would be substantially weakened or eliminated if drugs were legal.

    Because the alcohol bootleggers are still such a powerful force in America.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    President Felipe Calderon in Mexico demonstrated brave and consequential leadership against crime and terror, such leadership is rare.

    I don't think flooding Mexico with weapons purchased from the State Department and then turned over to the cartels by corrupt police and military, is particularly brave, nor does it decrease crime or terror.

    Legalization advocates usually claim that alcohol prohibition caused organized crime in the United States and its repeal ended the threat. This is widely believed and utterly false. Criminal organizations existed before and after prohibition.

    Strawman is made of straw. Proponents of legalization do not claim that prohibition birthed organized crime in America, but fed it by giving them a new means of revenue to exploit. A high demand product, cheaply manufactured, difficult to transport and distribute will result in high profits. Today, one does not hear about the Five Families muscling in on InBev's territory for a reason.

    Violent criminal organizations exist until they are destroyed by institutions of justice, by each other, or by authoritarian measures fueled by popular fear.

    Glad to see Mr. Walters recognizes himself for what he is: a fearmongering authoritarian who imagines himself just.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Well, suppose someone you know said, "Crack and heroin and meth are great, and I am going to give them to my brothers and sisters, my children and my grandchildren."

    Who said my brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren are obligated to take what I give them?

    Irresponsible talk of legalization weakens public resolve against use and addiction.

    Good thing I only engage in responsible talk of legalization.

    Talk of legalization today has a real cost to our families and families in other places.

    That First Amendment really does suck, doesn't it?

  • Gerholdt||

    If we needed any further proof that reality is a nightmarish hallucination caused by drug deficiency...

  • Malcolm Kyle||

    "The focus on drugs is believed to have redirected law enforcement resources that have resulted in more drunk driving, and decreased investigation and enforcement of violent crime laws. In Illinois, a 47% increase in drug arrests corresponded with a 22% decrease in arrests for drunk driving. Florida researchers have similarly linked the focus on low level drug arrests with an increase in the serious crime index."

    Drug Policy, Criminal Justice and Mass Imprisonment, by Bryan Stevenson

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