The Reagan Revolution has triumphed in Washington. The margin of victory of the administration's tax and spending cuts reflects the depth of the American people's mandate to cut the size and scope of government. Yet that mandate is now about to be cast aside in the name of "social issues," up till now kept on the back burner.
Heading the agenda of social issues is drugs. What the New Right activists and their allies want is nothing less than an all-out mobilization, enlisting the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the IRS, the Justice Department, and the State Department in an all-out war on drug producers and consumers. The price we would pay for all this? The loss of more of our dwindling freedoms.
The call to arms was sounded back in April by presidential counselor Edwin Meese. Addressing 250 prosecutors, Meese said the administration would mount "a more massive and extensive" campaign against drug trafficking than ever before attempted. The battle plan soon became clear.
The first step is to enlist the military. The idea is to allow the Air Force to disseminate data from spy satellites (ship movements, crop locations), the Army to make sniperscopes and other equipment (and training) available to local police, and the Navy to aid the Coast Guard in intercepting ships on the high seas (which used to be called, in the days of limited government, piracy). To permit these changes, the existing ban on military involvement in everyday law enforcement—the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act—would have to be repealed. By late summer both houses of Congress had complied.
The next step is to weaken the hard-won protections of the 1974 Taxpayers Privacy Act, which prohibited disclosure of information from income tax returns. A bill to allow the IRS to share information with other agencies investigating nontax matters sailed through the Senate in July. Along with that measure, the Treasury Department is planning stricter enforcement of the misnamed Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, further prying into the privacy of citizens' financial dealings and imposing further burdens on banking institutions.
The third step is to undermine the protections afforded those arrested and accused of crimes (and not merely "drug-related" crimes). For example, the Justice Department is seeking legislation to allow judges to deny bail to defendants who seem likely to flee.
And step four is to harass and intimidate the governments of other sovereign nations whose citizens are engaged in growing poppies, marijuana, and other forbidden crops. The State Department, says Meese, will work to "convince other countries…that it is not in their national interests to tolerate drug traffic."
In addition, the administration has put the former FBI executive assistant director, Bud Mullen, in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration and is considering folding the agency into the FBI. "If we can marry the DEA's street savvy with the FBI's talents and its 1,100 accountants—and bring in the Internal Revenue Service as well—then we can do the job," Mullen told Time recently.
In short, the plan is to increase substantially the size and scope of government activity and its coercive interference in people's lives—drug traffickers in particular, but all of us in general. And what are we likely to get in return for these new assaults on our liberty and pocketbooks? Not much.
Since 1973, when the DEA was created to step up federal antidrug activity, the number of heroin addicts has quadrupled. What stiffer enforcement has done, by restricting heroin supply, is to raise the price—and profitability—of heroin. That has attracted into the field even more criminal entrepreneurs, marketing heroin to more users.
Sadly, it has also contributed directly to the rise in crime. By making heroin more costly, drug enforcement activity leads addicts to commit ever more crimes in order to pay for a drug that, if legal, would cost at most a few dollars a day. A recent Temple University study of 237 addicts found that they committed more than 500,000 crimes during an 11-year period when they were out of jail and using the drug. But during periods when they were not addicted, these same individuals averaged 84 percent fewer crimes.
Amazingly, though, the antidrug zealots are drawing exactly the wrong conclusion from the Temple study. Instead of arguing for repeal of the laws that force the price so high that addicts must steal, they are saying that it proves the connection between heroin use and crime—and that efforts to stamp out heroin use by arresting traffickers must be stepped up. In fact, such measures will simply make the crime problem even worse.
Ronald Reagan is in a unique position to do something about this hysteria. Just as only a conservative Republican like Richard Nixon could change US policy toward China and get away with it politically, just as liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy could lead the fight against airline regulation, so also could Ronald Reagan provide the moral leadership to end America's insane war on drugs. Jimmy Carter had promised to end federal penalties on marijuana possession—but caved in rather than be perceived as a soft-headed liberal.
But Ronald Reagan has a tremendous mandate from the American people to get Big Government out of their lives. Ronald Reagan could go to the American people and explain to them that Prohibition didn't work against alcohol and is not working against drugs, that solving our crime problems requires taking the huge profit out of drugs by repealing the existing "crime tariff," and that the attempt to wage war on drugs involves too great a cost to traditional American values of individual liberty, privacy, and the separation of powers.
It isn't only civil libertarians who are saying this. Both the Wall Street Journal and former senator (and constitutional lawyer) Sam Ervin have come out strongly against repeal of the Posse Comitatus Act. They, too, seem to recognize that war is the health of the State—and that the main result of the war on drugs will be to build an ever more powerful and oppressive American State.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Making War on Americans".