Heresy on the Right

Conservatives and the drug war.


At the American Enterprise Institute's annual dinner in March, a black-tie affair attended by Vice President Cheney and other Republican luminaries, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa gave a keynote address in which he regretted that "repression takes priority over persuasion in the war on drugs." The line attracted only a smattering of applause from the 1,500 or so attendees–even less than his positive references to gay marriage and abortion rights.

But just a few weeks later, AEI, a bastion of inside-the-Beltway conservatism, published a report that departs from conventional wisdom about the war on drugs in startling and significant ways. An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy, written by independent policy analyst David Boyum and University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, does not advocate the repeal of prohibition, but it does reject central aspects of the drug policy status quo.

Boyum and Reuter conclude that "the case for imposing criminal sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana is weak"; that "domestic enforcement should be directed toward reducing drug-related problems, such as violence around drug markets, rather than locking up large numbers of low-level dealers"; that "eradication of drug crops in source countries" is "very unlikely to reduce America's drug problem"; and that "long sentences for minor, nonviolent drug offenders are perhaps the least defensible aspect of current drug policy." The report also steps on drug warriors' toes by noting that "Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), the only widely adopted prevention program, has been repeatedly demonstrated to be ineffective" and that "most people who try illicit drugs use them only a few times and neither suffer nor cause any serious identifiable damage."

The general tenor of the report could not have been unexpected, since Reuter, co-author of the 2001 book Drug War Heresies, is a well-known drug policy skeptic. It seems AEI is joining National Review and the Hoover Institution as one of the few conservative institutions that welcomes drug war dissenters.