Bob Barr

A Time to Fight…the War on Drugs, Among Other Things

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Flipping through A Time to Fight, the new book by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), reason contributor Daniel McCarthy finds some passages about drug policy he considers encouraging, saying they indicate "a better, more humane policy than what the Clintonites and Republicans are offering," one that's "about as good as what Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr has been saying lately." I disagree.

Webb's observations about opium in Afghanistan are perfectly sensible as far as they go:

The reality is that the opium production in Afghanistan is an example of basic market economics at work. The Afghanis grow opium, sometimes in fields so vast that they resemble the rice paddies of Vietnam, because there is a foreign market for their crops, a market that they could not duplicate with any other known product.

If you want to reduce the opium cop, you'll have to find a way to reduce the demand for heroin at its destination point.

Here Webb gets points for candor, I guess, but it's sad that politicians are deemed praiseworthy simply for acknowledging the plain truth. And when it comes to policy prescriptions, Webb does not sound any better than Barack Obama or, for that matter, a "compassionate" drug warrior like Joe Califano, president of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse:

The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana. It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement [against] gang-related activities. We should also fully fund the increasingly popular concept of drug courts, where drug offenders are allowed to enter treatment instead of prison and have their drug offense expunged from their records if they successfully complete treatment….

Drug addiction is not in and of itself a criminal act. It is a medical condition, indeed a disease, just as alcoholism is, and we don't lock people up for being alcoholics. Most Americans understand this distinction, even though the political process seems paralyzed when it comes to finding remedies to address it. Our country urgently needs more funding and more treatment centers for treating this disease, not more prison cells for punishing people who have fallen into conduct that, at bottom, is more harmful to themselves than it is to our society.

That first sentence would make sense if it had been written, say, 40 years ago, when simple possession of marijuana was still a felony in most states. Nowadays, it is not true that the government is "locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," if by "locking up people" Webb means sending them to prison (as opposed to making them spend a night in jail after arresting them). If Webb had said "the time has come to stop arresting people for mere possession and use of marijuana," that would represent progress, since around 830,000 people still get nabbed for marijuana possession each year, an experience that entails substantial costs, even if they don't include serving time. But any politician who today says people should not go to prison merely for smoking pot is not advocating any real change in policy.

Califano, who passes off minor twiddling with the status quo as a "revolution" in his prohibitionist screed High Society, would also be perfectly comfortable with the rest of Webb's comments, equating drug addiction with disease and justifying forced re-education of drug users. As I said in my review of Califano's book, this pseudomedical talk is a way of asserting that drug users' wishes and choices need not be respected because they are symptoms of a disease. Even if we accept the disease model of addiction, Webb and Califano display an irrational prejudice against certain kinds of addicts. After all, neither advocates forcing alcoholics into "treatment" under threat of imprisonment (unless they commit a crime such as driving while intoxicated).

For that matter, neither advocates alcohol prohibition based on the observation that some people drink too much. Yet both are committed to the continued arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of people who participate in the production and distribution of the currently illegal intoxicants. These are the people who represent the vast majority of the half a million drug offenders who are currently behind bars in this country. According to Califano, they deserve sympathy only if they happen to consume the product they sell. Because then they're "sick," you see.

John McCain is certifiably awful on the drug issue, refusing even to say that states should be free to set their own policies regarding the medical use of marijuana, a popular, eminently conservative position that would not require him to say anything nice about cannabis. Obama, by contrast, has promised to stop interfering with state decisions in this area, and he otherwise sounds at least as good as Webb. He seems similarly confused about which drug offenders go to prison, saying (through a spokesman) "we are sending far too many first-time, nonviolent drug users to prison for very long periods of time" (emphasis added). A few years ago, he said he thought marijuana laws should be "decriminalized," which at the very least ought to mean citing pot smokers instead of arresting them, but lately he has waffled on the question. Bob Barr, a former hard-line prohibitionist, has been evasive about the drug policies he supports at the state level, but he seems to favor ending the federal war on drugs, which would be a huge improvement, leaving states free to experiment with various approaches. That goes much further than either Webb or Obama has ever suggested.    

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  1. Anything in there about the DC war on privately owned guns?

    Just wonderin’ 😉

  2. It seems to me that the Bob Barr position on the Drug War is correct–both politically and from a policy standpoint.

    All that Bob Barr has to say is that both the Constitution and common sense demand that we de-federalize the Drug War. Let states set their own policies. We can even keep some sort of prohibition for interstate commerce.

    States would be allowed to raise their drug penalties if they see fit. If Utah wants to put 16-year-olds in prison for 10 years if they’re caught with a single joint, so be it. But, in the interest of fairness, Uncle Sam must ALSO respect a state like California’s right to turn marijuana into a merely citable offense or, in reasonable amounts, no offense at all.

    In short, the libertarian position has to go away from liberalize drug laws because drugs aren’t so bad to the extreme skeptical position of no one has any idea what to do; let’s go with 50 state experiments.

    This position is ironic since it conceals our real views on the matter. But there is a grain of truth to it because it’s not clear that full-on legalization wouldn’t have real costs in the current social environment. Better to take small steps and have as many experiments as is practical. (Local Amsterdams in USA!)

    New libertarian mantra: “The Constitution and Common Sense says that different states should have different drug laws. Utah and California should not have to walk in lockstep.”

  3. If you want to reduce the opium cop, you’ll have to find a way to reduce the demand for heroin at its destination point.
    Unless you’re willing to accept extreme measures like the death penalty for fist time users, I really don’t think it’s possible to reduce demand. Reducing the profit on opium by legalizing heroin would be much more effective.

  4. I’m glad to see Sen. Webb look at least critically at the War on Drugs because I truly cannot believe that the majority of DC politicians have put forth the minimum effort of questioning the status quo on this topic.

  5. liberalize drug laws because drugs aren’t so bad

    That’s not the position. It’s irrelevant how “good” or “bad” drugs are. The issue is one of freedom.

    But there is a grain of truth to it because it’s not clear that full-on legalization wouldn’t have real costs in the current social environment.

    I’m unconcerned about “real costs”. It’s the “real costs”, real and illusory, that got us into this mess in the first place.

  6. one quibble: People do go to jail for smoking marijuana. They do so if they are already on probation for the same offense, or some minor previous offense for which they got probation.

    Refusing to jail folks for smoking weed would be a real step forward if we also stopped testing probationer’s urine for THC and stopped using it as a way to send probationers to jail.

  7. neilpaul,
    That’s a good point. It raises the problems with mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and prison reform in general. But those will have to wait for their own threads.

  8. Myrt – that may be Ron Paul’s position, but it’s not the “libertarian” one. MP already addressed some of this, but people are not the property of the state; the state should not be enacting laws against non-coercive, non-violent behavior that violates no one else’s rights.

  9. How do we overcome the drug user hatred practiced by a nation that has bought into decades of anti-drug hysteria? Drug use is seen as the sin and the War on Drugs, even with its collateral damage, is seen as the saviour.

  10. It’s irrelevant how “good” or “bad” drugs are.

    Where I was born, no escape,
    There, there ain’t even no good/bad drugs.

  11. It seems that Webb and Califano conflate the erroneous statement “drug use is a medical condition” with the arguably true statement that “drug addiction is a medical condition.” The underlying theory apparently being that a single puff turns you into an addict.

    If I as a libertarian had to choose between the lesser of two evils, I would gladly choose public funding of addiction treatment centers over keeping 500,000+ people locked up in prison (and the resultant collateral damage) for selling mind-altering substances.

  12. Is there available any evidence that suggests that the societal gains of legalization would outweigh the societal ills related to the illegal trade and usage beyond the evergrowing prison population?

  13. one quibble: People do go to jail for smoking marijuana. They do so if they are already on probation for the same offense, or some minor previous offense for which they got probation.

    This is true. A lot of people go to prison on Petitions to Revoke Probation because they came up hot on a piss test. They may not be necessarily on probation for a marijuana case but a different felony.

    I have to admit that I don’t see very many marijuana only cases. Those are usually treated leniently. They get a misdemeanor, a fine, and unsupervised probation the first couple of times around. After that, the state won’t budge and will persecute it as a felony and request prison.

  14. The Afghanis grow opium, sometimes in fields so vast that they resemble the rice paddies of Vietnam

    And what was all that shit about Vietnam? What the FUCK, has anything got to do with Vietnam? What the fuck are you talking about?

  15. “Nowadays, it is not true that the government is ‘locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana,’ if by ‘locking up people’ Webb means sending them to prison (as opposed to making them spend a night in jail after arresting them).”

    While I appreciate the attempt to bring some specificity to the argument, I’m pretty sure that “locking people up” refers to harsh penal consequences rather than the literal placing of a person behind prison bars (but not jails). We lock them up on house arrest. We lock them out of student loans. We lock them up in their homes. We lock them up in useless rehab sessions. More importantly, if the police can find a way, they will do everything in their power to turn a simple possession bust into a felony bust.

    So I’m not particularly buying into the “marijuana raps aren’t that bad” argument. You could lose your freedom, right to bear arms, right to vote, no adopting kids, problems with professional licensing, ability to work certain jobs, etc.

    See, for example, Jacob Sullum’s July 2007 article on the “Lifelong Penalties for Pot.”

  16. Is there available any evidence that suggests that the societal gains of legalization would outweigh the societal ills related to the illegal trade and usage beyond the evergrowing prison population?

    Amsterdam and others.

  17. See, for example, Jacob Sullum’s July 2007 article on the “Lifelong Penalties for Pot.”

    Jacob vs. Jacob

  18. “Jacob vs. Jacob”

    Oh, jeez, I didn’t notice that. So I reread it. I guess he was emphasizing the collateral punishments (consistent with the 2007 article) rather than downplaying the overall harm. Still, we know that cops will do all they can to make simple possession into a felony.

  19. Myrt – that may be Ron Paul’s position, but it’s not the “libertarian” one. MP already addressed some of this, but people are not the property of the state; the state should not be enacting laws against non-coercive, non-violent behavior that violates no one else’s rights.

    Baked — there’s the hardcore libertarian position (legalize all drugs at all levels of government), and then there’s what the President can do if he or she respects the Constitution. Basically, Bob Barr’s statement outlines the most libertarian ACTION a president should take, though it would be an improvement if he also said that it was his personal opinion that states and cities should also end their WoDs, but that the federal government has no right to mandate that action.

  20. Is there available any evidence that suggests that the societal gains of legalization would outweigh the societal ills related to the illegal trade and usage beyond the evergrowing prison population?

    I don’t think I understand the question. The societal gains include the elimination of the societal ills related to the illegal trade.

  21. prolefeed – If the discussion had been strictly limited to what the president could do, I’d agree that he can’t change state law directly. What myrt said was “for the War on Drugs, federalism = libertarianism” – that’s not the case. On balance it would probably be a vast improvement, but that doesn’t make it the libertarian position.

  22. A realistic stance on the war on drugs would be to end it. Legalize drugs in certain communities and let druggies live there. If they fall, it’s not our problem. That’s true libertarianism.

  23. Baked Penguin, MP,

    What prolefeed said.

    I know that WE, as libertarians, think everyone should be able to do whatever they want so long as they don’t harm others. But most people aren’t libertarian.

    We have to meet people where they are. Politics is the art of the possible. Instead of thinking, what do I want in my perfect world? we should be thinking what’s the most that I can offer to my opponent while still significantly advancing position?

    The federalist position divides the drug war debate into a bunch of smaller venues–some of which are places we can win.

    It’s also the correct Constitutional position. Most Americans like the Constitution. (Or at least they think they do.)

  24. Joe Califano is a menace to society, and should be institutionalized.

  25. We have to meet people where they are. Politics is the art of the possible.

    Irrelevant to your original statement. Your statement was:

    the libertarian position has to go away from liberalize drug laws because drugs aren’t so bad

    That’s simply false. That is not the libertarian position on the WoD.

    You can discuss pragmatism all you want, but don’t start by misrepresenting the position you are being pragmatic about.

  26. I’m not interested in meeting halfwits where they are. I’d prefer it if they would leave me alone.

  27. Myrt – if you’re talking about the presidential candidate, fine. If you’re implying that Libertarian state candidates should not oppose drug laws, I call bullshit. I’ve voted for every Libertarian I’ve seen on a ballot. If my local/state candidates did not oppose drug laws, I’d have no problem breaking that streak.

  28. Right antiglobalist, because all drug users, recreational or otherwise, are “druggies”. Let’s ostracize, exile, and quarantine everyone who’s snorted or smoked a tiny bit yet pays their bills and keeps a steady job.

  29. Is there available any evidence that suggests that the societal gains of legalization would outweigh the societal ills related to the illegal trade and usage beyond the evergrowing prison population?

    The best and most compelling evidence is Prohibition. I think most commentators would agree that enacting the 21st Amendment was a net gain for the USA.

    Of course, your question implies that repeal of our current prohibition laws is only justifiable if it results in a net “societal gain.” Which is nonsense.

  30. Of course, your question implies that repeal of our current prohibition laws is only justifiable if it results in a net “societal gain.”

    Would the societal gain include the restored/constinued freedom of hundreds of thousands of Americans?

    How about the admittedly subjective enjoyment experienced by people who use drugs recreationally? I mean, people talk about “increased drug use” as if it is a bad thing, but to the extent using drugs is fun, aren’t we talking about “increased pleasure,” which is supposed to be a good thing, right?

  31. Baked,

    If you’re implying that Libertarian state candidates should not oppose drug laws, I call bullshit.

    People should be free to put most things into their own body. (I’m on the fence about PCP.)

    But even at the state level, dialing back the drug war probably won’t simply be a matter of “opposing drug laws.” It’ll be more like, “does first offense possession of marijuana include jail time or just a fine?” Or, “In calculating the weight of LSD to distinguish between possession and trafficking, do we include the blotter paper/sugar cube?”

    The Drug War was ratched up one disastrous step at a time. People have become used to having this thing around. We are going to have to demonstrate to them…very….slooowly…that drugs are not demonic substances with minds of their own.

    Do I wish that we could just flip the switch from repression to freedom? Yes! Yes, yes, one thousand times yes!

    But I don’t think that’s how things are working in the real world.

    Also, from the point of view of policy, I’m afraid that we’re like a kitten stuck in a tree. Yeah, we were able to get ourselves up there but it’s a damn site harder to get ourselves down.

    (Don’t the American People remind of you kittens?)

  32. I’m okay with incrementalism, but it does have to be done carefully. Some compromises are worse than what they seek to remedy.

    I also believe that marijuana could be legalized without an incremental approach. You may be right about people needing some kind of spoon feeding for harder drugs.

    What I’d have a problem with is a Libertarian candidate not addressing the issue, or stating that the status quo is acceptable because they wanted to get elected.

  33. Would the societal gain include the restored/constinued freedom of hundreds of thousands of Americans?

    How about the admittedly subjective enjoyment experienced by people who use drugs recreationally? I mean, people talk about “increased drug use” as if it is a bad thing, but to the extent using drugs is fun, aren’t we talking about “increased pleasure,” which is supposed to be a good thing, right?

    Sure, all that is true. But my point is that arguing against the War on Drugs from a social utilitarian perspective is a big loser.

    My guess is that most people think that incarceration for drug crimes is something that happens only to “bad people,” while drug use will cause nothing but harm to “good people.” We’re not dealing with rationality, for the most part.

    In fact, I find the continued support for marijuana prohibition astounding when you consider the very high percentage of people from the Boomer generation on foward who have at least tried it. It seems like the attitude is “oh, nothing bad ever happened to me, but I sure don’t want my kids doing it.” I’m a Gen Xer, and I see that very attitude in too many of my contemporaries.

  34. It seems like the attitude is “oh, nothing bad ever happened to me, but I sure don’t want my kids doing it.” I’m a Gen Xer, and I see that very attitude in too many of my contemporaries.

    The problem is they’ve ratcheted up the game since then. I don’t have a problem with my niece (who lives with us) smoking dope. I have a problem with forfeiture laws and SWAT teams kicking down my front door at 2AM. I have a problem with her not being able to get financial aid for college. All that shit wasn’t an issue when I was a young stoner back when Nancy was telling us to just say no. It’s the secondary consequences that are the deal breaker for me.

  35. Unless you’re willing to accept extreme measures like the death penalty for first time users, I really don’t think it’s possible to reduce demand.

    Then how do you explain changes in demand over time? Demand for such a product can be reduced by making alternatives more attractive, i.e. out-competing it. For morphine, that’s even been observed in mice.

  36. Myrt wrote, “In short, the libertarian position has to go away from liberalize drug laws because drugs aren’t so bad to the extreme skeptical position of no one has any idea what to do; let’s go with 50 state experiments.”

    No. The libertarian position is that people own their own bodies and minds. They can feed, employ, stimulate, medicate, or dispose of their bodies as they see fit. They can entertain any ideas in their minds and speak their minds. In doing all of this, of course, they don’t have license to interfere with anyone else’s freedom, injure others, or destroy their property.

    In fact, libertarians have a very good idea of “what to do” — let individuals decide for themselves and be responsible for the consequences of their actions — so basing our positions on the “extreme skeptical position” cited by myrt above would be both inaccurate, and a lie. On the other hand, in the name of effectively restraining government through checks and balances, libertarians can endorse the “50 laboratories” concept in respect of federalism. Getting the feds out of the prohibition business would definitely be an excellent start. But libertarians can and must still work at state and local levels to eliminate at least the most pernicious aspects of prohibition, if not the whole wrongheaded approach.

    Myrt sounds like many a “practical conservative” or neocon, who either misunderstands the libertarian position or deliberately mischaracterizes it, arguing against a strawman to convince real libertarians about what they “should” do. That’s sad. Libertarians must recognize that people who argue this way actually confuse others about what libertarianism are all about. If too much of this goes on, we will be in the position of changing our own position TO something we are foolish to embrace FROM something we never espoused in the first place. That’s just crazy.

  37. Oops … typing in haste on an unfamiliar keyboard — above should be…

    “…who argue this way actually confuse others about who libertarians are and what they want.”

  38. One other thing: I just want to be clear that we need to explain to people what our real position IS and why we hold it, rather than switch to a new, “more marketable” position based on public misunderstanding and rejection of a position that we do NOT hold, but that the ignorant attribute to us.

  39. How many more lives have to be devastated or lost before we wise up? Prohibition has never worked and never will. From the place of origin to the point of sale there can be up to a 17000% markup in the illegal drug trade. We’re building 900 new prison beds and hiring 150 more correction officers every two weeks in the USA. We arrest someone on a drug charge every 17 seconds. The “land of the free” now incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth, even more than far more populous communist China. More than 1 of every 100 adult Americans is now behind bars. We spend $69 billion per year on the drug war. In 1914 when all drugs were LEGAL 1.3% of the American population was addicted to drugs. Despite prohibition TODAY 1.3% of our population is STILL addicted to drugs. Over 100,000 Americans have lost their lives as a result of the war on drugs, which is really a war on our own citizens. Enough is Enough. We were smart enough to end alcohol prohibition after 13 years, the drug war has been going on almost 4 decades and drug prohibition to some degree for over 9 decades. The ONLY way to control drugs is to regulate them like alcohol and tobacco. That will END the profits available to criminals just like ending alcohol prohibition did and put control of drugs in the hands of the government instead of the criminals. The year alcohol prohibition ended violent crime FELL 65%. There has only been one drug success story in history, tobacco, which is hands down the most deadly and one of the most addictive of all drugs. Almost half of all users quit because of regulation, accurate information and medical treatment, not a war on tobacco users. No one went to jail and no one got killed. Contact your elected representatives every time there’s legislation on the table regarding illegal drugs and tell them to end the drug war. Not one of the ridiculous arguments justify devastating society with prohibition. Watch the video:
    If you’re using Internet Explorer use this link: http://jsknow.angelfire.com/home
    Other web browsers use this link: http://jsknow.angelfire.com/index.html

  40. Ron Paul’s position as well as Barr’s is that all drugs should eventually be legaliized even if some still have to be regulated. Defederalizing is a strategy to achieve that end goal. A first step from the position of a presidential candidate.

    There are many subtle libertarian opinions about the war on drugs, but they all approach this issue as one of freedom and self-ownership rather than the utilitarian argument of the greatest good for the greatest number.

  41. “Then how do you explain changes in demand over time? Demand for such a product can be reduced by making alternatives more attractive, i.e. out-competing it. For morphine, that’s even been observed in mice.” -Robert

    The weather changes, but we don’t change it. Tastes are fickle, transient, sometimes predictable, but never completely controllable.

  42. aren’t we talking about “increased pleasure,” which is supposed to be a good thing, right?

    No.

  43. If the sale and use of controlled substances was not controlled and was in fact legal would there be any real change in the number of addicts? If you could get a license to sell drugs as you can get one to sell beer, wine, and liquor would the republic topple? If the sale of such drugs were taxed and if there were regulations to insure safety and quality as there is for bread or cat food what harm would result?

    There are laws concerning public intoxication and driving while drunk. It seems to me that intoxication is intoxication. We punish bad behavior while under the influence of alcohol. Why not do the same with drugs?

    The “war on drugs” appears to meet the definition of insanity that says you are insane to keep repeating the same actions and expecting different results. First thing to do when you are in a hole is to stop digging.

  44. Obama, by contrast, has promised to stop interfering with state decisions in this area

    Not exactly
    Bush “promised” that too.

  45. We arrest someone on a drug charge every 17 seconds.

    Someone must have a good lawyer to keep getting out so fast!

    The weather changes, but we don’t change it. Tastes are fickle, transient, sometimes predictable, but never completely controllable.

    So? That word “completely” is a straw man qualifier I didn’t ask for. AFAIK, human behavior is controlled entirely by human beings, even though tastes per se are involuntary.

  46. “If I as a libertarian had to choose between the lesser of two evils, I would gladly choose public funding of addiction treatment centers over keeping 500,000+ people locked up in prison (and the resultant collateral damage) for selling mind-altering substances.”

    Agree that it is the lesser of 2 evils, but is still a bad solution. For some reason the debate always turns to prison vs. treatment. I was in treatment as a teenager, and it cost $1000 a day. Not sure how much prison costs, but something tells me ‘drug counselors’ charge way more than prison guards . Also, it didn’t work, not even a little bit, which is why my folks eventually said ‘f this’. Treatment is bunk unless you volunteer to go on your own free will. Otherwise it is a joke. And pretending it is a viable solution to solving anything is pandering to the treatment industry. There is no arguing with a drug counselor that you are not an addict, so the whole process of forced treatment starts with a lie.

  47. When I say “viable solution to solving anything”, my point is that there is nothing to solve. The forced treatment vs. prison debate is premised on something being morally wrong.

  48. It’s absurd to claim the Constitution does not protect the right to choose what we ingest, and the cost of that absurdity is the deaths of tens of thousands, serious injury to hundreds of thousands, and the incarceration of millions.

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