Viewpoint: An Overdose of the State


When Ronald Reagan became president, it was a heady experience for many limited-government advocates. Here at last was a man who, both as candidate and president, unabashedly proclaimed his desire to get government out of our lives.

It did not take long, however, for entrenched special interests to sabotage much of the president's plans to reduce the size and scope of government. Especially disheartening was to see Reagan make policy that actually increased government intrusion into our lives. His drug-enforcement policy is perhaps the most egregious example of this: since taking office, Reagan has doubled federal expenditures on drug-enforcement efforts.

Indeed, the president's drug-enforcement policy is without question more vigorous, comprehensive, and expensive than that of any previous administration. In so being, it completely contradicts Reagan's professed major tenets: restoring individual responsibility and lessening our dependence on big government.

What is central to these basic tenets is the idea that autonomous individuals have a moral right to determine what is in their interest. This principle acknowledges that the individual should be free to act, provided that another's freedom of action is not thereby interfered with. On what basis, then, can Reagan presume to dictate to adult Americans what substances they may or may not take into their bodies?

Reagan's coercive stance with respect to drug use not only undermines the basic principles of his administration, but also its ancillary goals. Consider the administration's drug policy in light of Reagan's objectives of cutting government spending, ferreting out waste and abuse, reducing crime, delegating greater responsibility to state and local governments, shrinking the federal work force, and relying more on private-sector solutions to social problems.

Far from being reduced, Reagan's expenditures on drug enforcement have exceeded all other percentage increases in federal spending, including the military. And with this new largesse has come greater opportunities for boondoggling. Witness the paraquat-spraying operation last summer in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. Helicopters sprayed the dangerous herbicide over a tiny plot of marijuana in winds of over 15 miles per hour, performing the operation during the height of the tourist season. The local community was outraged over the damage caused both to property in the immediate vicinity and to the tourist trade in the region.

A much larger boondoggle is the mass urinalysis program that now covers 3 million military personnel each year. These tests, which according to some estimates may eventually cost billions, are conducted to determine marijuana use in the military. However, the Department of Defense's own appraisals show the tests as only 40 to 60 percent accurate. Though the tests are worthless as forensic, guilt-determining devices, tens of thousands of service personnel have suffered disciplinary action based on the test results. (Legal challenges are beginning to overturn these disciplinary actions, but nothing is yet being done to end this costly drain on taxpayers.)

Moreover, few things do more to contribute to crime than drug prohibition. Experts estimate that one-third to one-half of all violent and property crime in the United States could be avoided by lifting bans on addictive drugs such as heroin. Addicts now rob and mug to get money to buy expensive illegal street heroin. But if legal, heroin would cost the typical addict no more than a few dollars a day, if even that.

Reagan's drug policy also is at odds with his call for state and local government to assume greater responsibility. Prior to his administration, state and local governments took almost exclusive responsibility for enforcing drug regulation. Now, in an unprecedented move, the US Army has been drafted into domestic marijuana-eradication efforts that sweep down on small communities in Northern California, destroying private property, obstructing citizens' free movement, and, in general, making a mockery of the Bill of Rights.

With regard to Reagan's efforts to shrink the federal work force, drug enforcement is once again the exception to the rule. The Drug Enforcement Agency has 19 percent more agents now than two years ago. And other agencies responsible for enforcing drug laws have been similarly expanded.

Perhaps the most glaring contradiction between Reagan's professed political philosophy and his drug policy is his failure to rely on the private sector to solve drug-abuse problems. "The answer to the drug problem," the president once said, "comes through winning over the users to the point that we take the customers away from the drugs." If he really believes that, then why depend on drug prohibition to stop drug use? Experience with alcohol prohibition shows that force is ineffective against market demand. The only rational response to the problem of drug abuse is effective and humane treatment for those who ask for it.

Virtually thousands of private drug treatment and counseling centers are doing an outstanding job in this area, and President Reagan would be well advised simply to provide moral support for their work. Like the traveler in Aesop's fable "The Wind and the Sun" who removed his cloak only when persuaded by the warming rays of the sun, the problem of drug abuse cannot be solved by the wind of force.

Lance Lamberton is former deputy director of the White House Office of Policy Information under the Reagan administration. He is now director of public relations for a private firm.