First AEI, Now the Journal?


The Drug War Chronicle reports that The Wall Street Journal's Tuesday edition carried a column by George Melloan, the paper's deputy editor for international affairs, calling for the repeal of drug prohibition. I missed the piece and (as with most of the Journal's content) can't get it online without subscribing, but this seems like a significant development. Editorially, the Journal has been gung-ho about the war on drugs for as long as I can recall. Although it has run antiprohibitionist essays by prominent drug war critics such as Milton Friedman, I don't remember seeing or hearing of a similar piece by a staffer. I don't expect to see a change in the paper's official position anytime soon, but maybe Melloan's column signifies a greater openness to the other side of the debate.

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  1. Top 100 Things I’d Do as a Libertarian President

    #38: I’d end the War on Drugs and replace it with a War on Rugs. Did you know that many rugs come from Iran? That their crazy patterns induce epileptic fits? That rugs are often pulled out from under people? And that rug burn is a scourge to our nation’s children?

    Of course, as a libertarian president, I’d just issue some stern anti-rug messages without actually doing anything.

  2. “is that fabric being damaged now?”
    Be nice and just say no. DUH!

  3. Past converts, even prestigious ones, seem to have been of little to no value to the cause. Still I’m grateful for any good news, and sooner or later, when enough people see the light on prohibition, the whole system should come crashing down.

  4. Warren,

    I know a lot of federal and state prosecutors and everyone I know at least thinks the drug war is a waste of time that is killing our judicial system. I am not talking about the top guys who get their positions based on political clout or elections, but the guys on the ground who actually prosecute the cases. I think a lot more people would support legalization that you realize. It is just that the other side is so vocal that those who have their doubts don’t think it would do any good to do anything. Also, a lot of people, while they wouldn’t care if drugs are legal, don’t use drugs and don’t care enough about the issue to fight the vocal minority.

  5. As far as the partisan split on this goes, it seems to me that righty opinion leaders seem more willing than their rank and file to challenge the drug laws, while lefty leaders seem less willing than their supporters to do so.

    I’m not sure what to make of that.

  6. Interesting that the War on Drugs has done so much more damage to our civil liberties than the War on Terror, yet the outcry is generally only about the damage done by the latter. Perhaps even worse is the corruption that the War on Drugs brings with it (e.g., civil forfeiture, which is so dramatically unconstitutional that the Court lost a lot of credibility supporting it).

    joe, this is one of those issues that surprises me vis-?-vis the left and right, too. The Clinton administration, for instance, was as hot to fight the drug war as the GOP administrations have been. Why? Fear of looking “soft”? Is the drug war actually popular? I’m one of the few non-drug users who reads Reason :), but I oppose the “war” on almost every ground I can think of. You don’t have to be some libertine nutcase to oppose the War on Drugs, either.

  7. The article;

    Musings About the War on Drugs
    February 21, 2006; Page A19

    Economist Milton Friedman predicted in Newsweek nearly 34 years ago that Richard Nixon’s ambitious “global war against drugs” would be a failure. Much evidence today suggests that he was right. But the war rages on with little mainstream challenge of its basic weapon, prohibition.

    To be sure, Mr. Friedman wasn’t the only critic. William Buckley’s National Review declared a decade ago that the U.S. had “lost” the drug war, bolstering its case with testimony from the likes of Joseph D. McNamara, a former police chief in Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif. But today discussion of the war’s depressing cost-benefit ratio is being mainly conducted in the blogosphere, where the tone is predominantly libertarian. In the broader polity, support for the great Nixon crusade remains sufficiently strong to discourage effective counterattacks.

    In broaching this subject, I offer the usual disclaimer. One beer before dinner is sufficient to my mind-bending needs. I’ve never sampled any of the no-no stuff and have no desire to do so. So let’s proceed to discuss this emotion-laden issue as objectively as possible.

    The drug war has become costly, with some $50 billion in direct outlays by all levels of government, and much higher indirect costs, such as the expanded prison system to house half a million drug-law offenders and the burdens on the court system. Civil rights sometimes are infringed. One sharply rising expense is for efforts to interdict illegal drug shipments into the U.S., which is budgeted at $1.4 billion this fiscal year, up 41% from two years ago.

    That reflects government’s tendency to throw more money at a program that isn’t working. Not only have the various efforts not stopped the flow but they have begun to create friction with countries the U.S. would prefer to have as friends.

    As the Journal’s Mary O’Grady has written, a good case can be made that U.S.-sponsored efforts to eradicate coca crops in Latin America are winning converts among Latin peasants to the anti-American causes of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Their friend Evo Morales was just elected president of Bolivia mainly by the peasant following he won by opposing a U.S.-backed coca-eradication program. Colombia’s huge cocaine business still thrives despite U.S. combative efforts, supporting, among others, leftist guerrillas.

    More seriously, Mexico is being destabilized by drug gangs warring over access to the lucrative U.S. market. A wave of killings of officials and journalists in places like Nuevo Laredo and Acapulco is reminiscent of the 1930s Prohibition-era crime waves in Al Capone’s Chicago and the Purple Gang’s Detroit. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda and the Taliban are proselytizing opium-poppy growers by saying that the U.S. is their enemy. The claim, unlike many they use, has the merit of being true.

    Milton Friedman saw the problem. To the extent that authorities curtail supplies of marijuana, cocaine and heroin coming into the rich U.S. market, the retail price of these substances goes up, making the trade immensely profitable — tax-free, of course. The more the U.S. spends on interdiction, the more incentive it creates for taking the risk of running drugs.

    In 1933, the U.S. finally gave up on the 13-year prohibition of alcohol — a drug that is by some measures more intoxicating and dangerous to health than marijuana. That effort to alter human behavior left a legacy of corruption, criminality, and deaths and blindness from the drinking of bad booze. America’s use of alcohol went up after repeal but no serious person today suggests a repeat of the alcohol experiment. Yet prohibition is still being attempted, at great expense, for the small portion of the population — perhaps little more than 5% — who habitually use proscribed drugs.

    Mind-altering drugs do of course cause problems. Their use contributes to crime, automobile accidents, work-force dropouts and family breakups. But the most common contributor to these social problems is not the illegal substances. It is alcohol. Society copes by punishing drunken misbehavior, offering rehabilitation programs and warning youths of the dangers. Most Americans drink moderately, however, creating no problems either for themselves or society.

    Education can be an antidote for self-abuse. When it was finally proved that cigarettes were a health risk, smoking by young people dropped off and many started lecturing their parents about that bad habit. LSD came and then went after its dangers became evident. Heroin’s addictive and debilitative powers are well-known enough to limit its use to a small population. Private educational programs about the risks of drug abuse have spread throughout the country with good effect.

    Some doctors argue that the use of some drugs is too limited. Marijuana can help control nausea after chemotherapy, relieve multiple-sclerosis pain and help patients whose appetites have been lowered to a danger level by AIDS. Morphine, some say, is used too sparingly for easing the terrible pain of terminally ill cancer patients. It is argued that pot and cocaine use by inner-city youths is a self-prescribed medicine for the depression and despair that haunts their existence. Doctors prescribe Prozac for the same problems of the middle class.

    So what’s the alternative? An army of government employees now makes a living from the drug laws and has a rather conflictive interest in claiming both that the drug laws are working and that more money is needed. The challenge is issued: Do you favor legalization? In fact, most drugs are legal, including alcohol, tobacco and coffee and the great array of modern, life-saving drugs administered by doctors. To be precise, the question should be do you favor legalization or decriminalization of the sale and use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines?

    A large percentage of Americans will probably say no, mainly because they are law-abiding people who maintain high moral and ethical standards and don’t want to surrender to a small minority that flouts the laws, whether in the ghettos of Washington D.C. or Beverly Hills salons. The concern about damaging society’s fabric is legitimate. But another question needs to be asked: Is that fabric being damaged now?

  8. Is the drug war actually popular?

    I don’t know that it’s popular so much as it’s people believing the propaganda that they were taught as kids, despite their personal experiences. I think enough people believe the hype(that all use is abuse, addiction is instant, etc.) and think that government should prevent it to make the issue cross party lines.

  9. “Clinton administration, for instance, was as hot to fight the drug war as the GOP administrations have been. Why? Fear of looking “soft”? Is the drug war actually popular?”
    Actually the Clinton administration (sadly and pathetically I agree) was getting its ass handed to it by a formidable coalition of opportunistic republicans and chickenshit democrats one nano-second after it hinted that it would pursue a more balanced supply/demand reduction approach. It was a political loser as an issue…like being enthusiastically anti-execution or crusading to restore voting rights to felons. Clinton did his classic about-face after he caught winds of some very scary poll numbers.

  10. Is the drug war actually popular?

    I dunno, but the tv networks have sure ramped up the anti-drug propaganda lately. Apparently The State feels it hasn’t been popular “enough”.

  11. Most people are opposed to drug abuse, understandably so. The government and the media have taught them that being opposed to drugs also means that they need to be for the criminalization of such drugs. But the connection is fatuous. Once you give up on the idea of zero tolerance, i.e. trying to get zero “drug” use, then it becomes much easier to see that the best path to harm reduction is to make it legal and fight it out in the open like we do with highly addictive tobacco.

    By taking away the fact that it is illegal, several things immediately happen. 1) Lots of police are sudden freed up to fight real crime, aka predatory crime such as murder, rape, assault, theft etc. 2) Similarly, prison space, and court space, will be dramatically freed up to be used by people who commit crimes against others. Kiss away the horrible process of many plea deals that are made because we can’t (won’t) afford to actually prosecute everyone. Kiss away early parole for dangerous convicts because we need the prison space enough to gamble they won’t continue to hurt us after their early release. 3) Assuming you don’t try to maintain a high price for once illegal drugs with high taxes, the reduced price suddenly reduces the amount of crime that addicts create trying to get the money for their “fix”. Similarly many women who enter prostitution to enable them to pay for their fix will not need to do so. 4) Just as liquor store owners don’t murder each other, the violence associated with turf battles suddenly disappears because you can now call the police and prosecute those who ripped you off etc. 5) Similarly, police deaths due to fighting drugs drops to zero. 6) Countries like Columbia that we are destroying with the drug war can finally have a chance to live in peace. 7) Heroin users and others will suddenly be able to tell exactly how much of a dose they are taking, dramatically reducing accidental overdoses. Similarly, someone who is od’ing or having some other bad reaction can safely be taken to the emergency room for treatment without fear of prosecution. Think Pulp Fiction for an example. 8) Government funds can now be used elsewhere, like cutting taxes.

  12. I think the folks who drank the cool aid about the seriousness of drugs are slowly dying off, and the Medicare costs of keeping them alive 6 extra months will be the nail in the coffin of drug prohibition (at least for marijuana)

    This is the group who also fear greasers, niggers, fags, loose women, and the Irish.

  13. 7) Heroin users and others will suddenly be able to tell exactly how much of a dose they are taking, dramatically reducing accidental overdoses.

    Most opiate ODs are the result of combining with stimulants or other drugs, not an ‘overdose’.

  14. daksya,
    But the principal is valid. Know that what you are taking is really 100% heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, etc. instead of an unknown mix of substances that have been cut or otherwise altered.

  15. Regarding heroin overdoses:

    Some selected quotes:

    Postmortem evaluations from a significant number of cases have revealed the presence of other depressant drugs such as alcohol and benzodiazepines have contributed to overdose. More than 70% of users reported using another drug at the time of their last overdose.(2) High levels of alcohol in the blood can potentiate the depressant qualities of very low levels of opioids, increasing the lethal potential for overdose.

    Instant death from heroin overdose is extremely uncommon; most decedents are estimated to have died 1-3 hours after injection.(3) This statistic clearly indicates the considerable potential that exists in preventing a heroin-related death.

    Sadly, the threat of police involvement often plays into the overdose scenario with tragic consequences. 86 percent of users witnessed an overdose in the last year, and yet in all witnessed emergency situations, calling an ambulance was the first action in only 14 percent of the cases

    Within the last several years, the number of heroin overdoses in the United States alone has reached new levels of alarm. Jumping exponentially just between 1990 and 1996, the number of heroin-related emergencies doubled from 33,900 to 70,500

    Another possibility for harm reduction lies in safe injection rooms. Since the mid-1980s, government sanctioned heroin clinics have existed in Switzerland and other parts of Western Europe.(7) At these heroin clinics, users may inject their own drugs, provided that they stay no longer than half and hour. Medical personnel are present at all times, as a protection against overdose and to monitor the handling of the equipment provided to the public. Users are free from the fear of incarceration at the clinics, and may come and go as they please.

    After the Swiss government observed lowered rates of HIV and hepatitis infection, it continued with an even bolder attempt at treatment-heroin prescriptions Since 1994, hardened addicts in Switzerland may receive free heroin on prescription at 20 different clinics across the country.(7) The program is for addicts who have who have physical or mental health problems, have tried other methods of treatment and have been addicted for 10 or more years.(7)

    The provision of safe injection rooms and prescription heroin may not reduce the addiction rate among the drug using population, but it has been shown to make heroin use safer. Risk of overdose is significantly reduced by medical supervision, as is the threat of epidemic. Purity of the drug is also ensured when prescribed; after all, many overdoses have been found to be the result of high levels of toxic “cutting agents.”

    the libertarian in me can’t endorse “free” (i.e. government handouts) heroin for even hard core long time users, but the Swiss experiment shows that heroin deaths do in fact decline considerably in such situations, and also suggest that many such deaths would be prevented if not for fear of police action.

  16. I’m curious, if we tax drugs at the rate that we tax cigarettes in like NYC or Chicago, and then aren’t spending money on the Drug War, how much net money would come into the economy? We really should move totally to taxing “bads” like gasoline, pollution, drugs, prostituion, gambling, alcohol, and cigarettes so that with the money raised and expenditures saaved we can drastically reduce taxes on “goods” like corporate and personal income.

  17. HappyJuggler, I really like the arguments you made in your first post, especially about liquor store owners not killing each other. However, I frankly don’t care if drug users die from OD’ing or from getting AIDS because they made their own decisions to do so. The government really shouldn’t be providing a moral hazard incentive to drug use by giving out free needles or whatever. I think that such proposals as free rehab or clean needles (even though you’re not arguing for them, but many anti-drug war liberals do in fact call for these) would make legalization harder as most people don’t want their taxes subsidizing others drug use and really could care less if heroin addicts kill themselves b/c of their use.

  18. I guess totally in the taxing bads post may not be feasible, but we can definitely shift it much more in that direction.

  19. Someone help me to understand why my previous post was put through a review process and then not posted. (From several hours ago, I’ve just returned to office).


  20. SteveInClearwater,

    Jealousy due to your warm weather location? Though one wouldn’t think so if the server is in Southern Cal.

    Speaking of “Tampa Bay”, USA Today ran a bit on ten great places in “Hidden Florida”, and Pinellas County is listed.

  21. Nevada — where prostitution is legal — had an initiative to legalize marijuana a few years back. It failed. Did I mention that most everything is legal in laissez-faire Nevada?

  22. Steve,

    I had essentially the same problem a few weeks ago. I sent some emails to two or three Reason staffers and got back an email from Julian Sanchez that said, in part:

    It’s not censorship; our spam blocker just automatically holds up posts
    that have multiple links in them for moderation

  23. trostky,

    Even though the state of Nevada itself does not prohibit prostitution, Las Vegas does prohibit it. Between the gambling, strip joints, and the yellow page ads for “escort services”, you’d think they wouldn’t actually make an activity between consensual adults illegal. But they do. Go figure.

  24. The drug war is a triumph of religion over reason, like The Crusades. In a war against evil, the only way to lose is to stop fighting.
    BTW, I served on the Washoe County (Reno) Grand Jury for a year and Nevada has draconian drug laws. 20 years to life for possesion of any substantial amount of cocaine, meth, etc.

  25. I frankly don’t care if drug users die from OD’ing or from getting AIDS because they made their own decisions to do so.

    Comment by: Herrick and His Balls at February 24, 2006 04:16 PM

    Herrick, how about if you and your balls consider that deaths from ODing on heroin and contraction of HIV through IV drug use are largely the result of government prohibition? As stated earlier, if heroin is sold by legitimate “dealers”, i.e. pharmacists, then it won’t be diluted with toxic substances. If it were legal to purchase clean hypodermic needles for injection without a prescription, then users would be less likely to share and reuse needles, thereby decreasing the spread of blood-borne disease. A lot of the ills of illegal drug use are the direct result of the illegality of drug use, not the drug use itself. Prohibition of drugs greatly increases the harms of drug use, while adding new types of harms, just as prohibition of alcohol did during the 20’s

  26. While the WoD might be sustained by religion, specifically the “abstinance is best” wing of the protestant churches, it was set up to get rid of our darker skinned brothers and sisters after harvest time was over. It was OK for the mexicans to puff their cheba when the crops needed to be brought in, but after they were safely in the barns and sold at market marijuana laws we handy tools for shipping those workers back across the border.

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