Drug War

Did Jimmy Carter End the War on Drugs?


Today is the 40th anniversary of the war on drugs—if we say it was started by Richard Nixon (ignoring the fact that the federal government had been using force to suppress the use of politically incorrect intoxicants since 1914) and focus on one of several plausible milestones during his administration. Former President Jimmy Carter marks the occasion with a New York Times op-ed piece endorsing the recommendations of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which urges governments to ease up on low-level, nonviolent drug offenders (including users) while cracking down on major traffickers. Unlike some members of the commission, Carter is not a recent convert to the cause of drug policy reform; as he mentions, he advocated decriminalizing marijuana possession when he was president. "Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself," he told Congress in 1977. But Carter's praise for the commission's report illustrates the mismatch between its bold criticism of the status quo and its timid suggestions for reform.

Carter claims the commission's recommendations "are compatible with United States drug policy from three decades ago." In his telling, everything was fine until Ronald Reagan came along and relaunched Nixon's war on drugs. Never mind that the one example he cites of his supposedly enlightened drug policies—eliminating federal criminal penalties for possessing up to an ounce of pot—was never actually implemented, or that his proposal was less ambitious than the recommendation of the Nixon-appointed National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, which in 1972 said possession of cannabis for personal use and nonprofit transfers of the drug should "no longer be an offense" (not that Nixon was keen to follow this advice). Let's also forget that penny-ante marijuana cases are almost never handled by the federal government anyway. Let's even give Carter a pass on that whole paraquat thing, which pot smokers were pretty upset about at the time. The main problem with his reform agenda is that it leaves the prohibitionist legal regime essentially unchanged, except that penalties would be less severe and the government would spend more money on treatment. This amounts to de-escalating the war on drugs rather than ending it.

That goal is arguably consistent with the report Carter is endorsing, although the Global Commission on Drug Policy also suggests that some governments may choose to go further:

[We should] encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalization and legal regulation that can accomplish these objectives and provide models for others.

This cautious-sounding suggestion may be the most radical passage in the report, which never directly mentions "legalization" or "repeal." Perhaps this reticence is a deliberate strategy, or perhaps it simply resulted from the need to build consensus among the commission's 19 members. Either way, the report is open to multiple interpretations, which is both its strength and its weakness.

I discussed the report in my column this week. More on the 40th anniversary of Nixon's war on drugs here and here. Last year in Reason, I noted that public support for legalizing pot is substantially stronger today than it was during the Carter administration.

[Thanks to Tom Angell and Richard Cowan for the tip.]


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  1. It is incoherent to ban the selling of a product but not the buying or possession of it. Every part of the transaction should be legal.

    1. One step at a time.

      1. Yep. This is a valid approach for the same reason medical marijuana is — a crack in the goddamn wall.

    2. Don’t tell this to pro-lifers who call for the prosection of abortionists but not the women who seek their services (though in fairness their incoherence on this subject is in an attempt to dodge getting painted as locking up pregnant women).

        1. In all fairness, MNG didn’t just pull that out of his ass. In the abortion thread from Ask a Libertarian the other day, I did mention that as a way in which in a state may choose to regulate abortions in a partially criminalized regime. And as I stated in response to Draco’s initial statement, it doesn’t strike me as illogical to recognize scale as an important consideration in law. Heinous crimes with particularly compelling circumstances are treated differently in law. A premeditated double homicide will usually get capital sentencing consideration where a single homicide of passion will not. Likewise, a doctor who performs abortions provides access to the service and has likely or will likely perform dozens to hundreds over the course of his practice vs. a woman who may be a one-off offender. Different circumstances and levels of involvement in a criminal offense warrant different charges. A doctor could be considered on conspiracy charges, a woman as an accomplice. These are all theoretical considerations IMO. The larger point is that in a world absent Roe v. Wade, different states would pursue these issues differently and at some point a best practices framework would be developed and likely adopted by most states that had a restricted abortion regime.

          1. Here’s an idea: How about people stop trying to use the state to enforce their will on other people.

            1. Not to turn this into an abortion thread, but at whatever point a fetus becomes human, it is entitled to the preservation of its most fundamental right: life.

              I have my own judgements on that (none of which are rooted in FSM mysticism) but that is moot for the larger question of “if a restricted abortion regime exists, what is the best, most practicable way to institute it.”

              1. Not to turn this into an abortion thread, – Too late!

                A premeditated double homicide will usually get capital sentencing consideration where a single homicide of passion will not. Likewise, a doctor who performs abortions provides access to the service and has likely or will likely perform dozens to hundreds over the course of his practice vs. a woman who may be a one-off offender.

                Except that it’s not likewise. It’s not as though the doctor kidnapped the woman and convinced her to abort her baby. The woman actively sought out the doctor – so your scenario more closely approximates a premeditated murder for hire, with the assassin played by the doctor, and the woman playing the role of someone who delivers the victim to Mr. Wu’s hog pen for disposal.

                I don’t often agree with MNG, but he is completely correct (and as I’ve said before) that the criminalization of pregnant women will simply not happen.

                This translates to a social prohibition on abortions solely for those without the means to travel to a place where they are legally performed.

                Again, I have absolutely no problem with people voicing their opinions on the question of abortion, but I part company with anyone who wants to involve the state in an ‘enforcement’ role.

      1. MNG, stop trying to hijack every thread to complain about right-wing pet causes.

        1. It’s all he knows.

          1. Funny, here I was thinking it’s all that right wingers know. Are you saying that rightists can’t take care of their pets? MNG may be kicking the dog a bit, but that dog has been shitting on everyone else’s lawn for quite a while now.

      2. Umm…. if the women actually got abortions, they wouldn’t be pregnant.

      3. Abortion! Jews!!!

        1. Rage, impotent, lil’ rage! Go play Gobby-Pip.

    3. Although I agree with the central premise that every part of the transaction should be legal, I don’t think a decriminalized state is inherently incoherent.

      There are some basic utilitarian concerns with locking up all users of illicit substances that are easily remedied by focusing only on suppliers. Beyond that, if the law presumes some sort of undesirable status of certain substances (which a decriminalized regime entails), there is room for scale of the violation to be considered. Stealing $5 is treated differently before the law than stealing $500,000. The same logic can extend to smoking a bowl vs. providing kilos of high quality Humboldt grown to the greater L.A. market.

      Ultimately, I believe the liberty interest in drug abuse is compelling and there is no justification for govt to criminalize any aspect of its provision. However, if it does determine that some criminalization is warranted, though I disagree, its recognition that there are various degrees to differentiate is not inherently illogical.

      1. One conservative drug warrior acquaintance of mine has suggested that penalties are back-assward. We should have laws that provide execution of users and no penalties for dealers. This would, he said, quickly dry up the market – those bold enough to still try to score some drugs would find the $$ drastically lowered so they wouldn’t have to resort to crime to pay for their habit.

        1. Please shoot him in dick next you see him, and while he is writhing in pain, remind him that he thinks you should be more heavily prosecuted for smoking a bowl and watching Super Troopers than you should for shooting him in dick and sparing the world from his seed being propogated.

    4. Actually a lot of products are treated that way by the law. In those cases sale is seen as a rip-off, and the buyer is considered a victim. That’s how it is with lawn darts, unlicensed therapeutic drugs & devices, and 3-wheel ATVs, for instance.

      1. All of which should be legal for sale. Let the buyer beware.

  2. Of course he ended the WOD, it was in an alternate universe, once created by the reverse Flash.

  3. So, I saw Green Lantern last night. Perfect? No. As good as Batman movies or Iron Man movies? No.

    But I’m not seeing what critics hate about it SO much. Yes, the CGI costume is stupid, and looks weird, and is a bit of a bad choice. Yes, there should have been a lot more scenes on Oa, and it ends sort of as a, “Shit boys, ran out of CGI money!” Oh, and paralax is a bad villian, and Hector Hammond needed more development.

    On the other hand- GL movie! Parts of it were fun, and the woman playing Carol Farris is one of the hottest things on two legs that I have ever SEEN. Seriously, move over Jessica Alba, etc. etc. We have a new, reigning, “Hottest woman ever” champion!

    1. That would be Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest squeeze, Blake Lively.

      1. She’s fond of leaking dirty pictures of herself to the internet. Though that might just be a subliminal iPhone ad campaign.

      2. Leo’s pickup line: “Have you ever seen Titanic? That was me.”

        It’s a lock.

      3. Really?

  4. Im against the WOD but never understood libertarian obsession with declaring it lost. since its just a do-gooder feel-good effort, cant we declare victory and go home?

    1. Sure. After all, people who declare it a war typically demand it be won. If this makes them feel good — “Hey guys, we beat the bad marijuana! Now it’s only good marijuana left!” — I’m all for it.

  5. Thank God Jimmy Carter is on top of the War on Drugs.

    He already ended stagflation, the Soviet war on Afghanistan, the Cold War, houselessness, and even reconciled a father, son, and grandfather in Texas, although I hear he got a little agitated when the grandfather claimed “everyone hated that baby!” about the father.

    1. Cotton Mather Hill was an American hero who left his shins in the Pacific. If he says everyone hated that baby, then everyone hated that baby.

  6. i guess Im for using programs I am against at least for arguments to kill other programs Im against. Therefore “DARE is now in 99% of the schools, proving we won WOD”.

  7. This is cool and all. But who gives a fuck about what Jimmy Carter thinks anymore?

  8. Ironically, Jimmy Carter was probably the last president who personally never utilized an intoxicant of any kind. I bet he drank less booze while in the White House than Calvin Coolidge did.

    1. You know who else was a teetotaler?

      1. Your mom?

    2. Billy drank for both of them.

  9. That’s nice, I guess. But still misses the point completely.

    Anyone who is not for full legalization of all drugs is complicit in the deaths of the many thousands of people murdered in the drug war every year. If you don’t think that heroin, coke and meth should be legal to buy, sell or possess, you are pro-murder scum.

    1. And pro-murder/imprisonment-heavily-biased-against-minorities scum.

    2. Anyone who eats tomatoes is complicit in the rape, beating, and slavery of itinerant farm workers.

      1. That’s fucking stupid. Eating tomatoes does not mean I explicitly support a policy which leads directly to rape, beatings or slavery, while support for drug prohibition is support for policy which is directly responsible for many thousands of deaths every year.
        I may be assigning slightly too much moral blame on casual supporters of prohibition, but not much. If you are against legalization of the drug trade, you have blood on your hands.

        1. Close your eyes and open your wallet. You’ll get a little treat!

          If you buy a product that you know regularly includes such things as beaten workers and slavery as business practices in its production pipeline, then you consent and endorse those practices through your purchase. And, hey, those practices, I’m sure, keep prices down for the hard-working consumer, so there’s always that!

          This is precisely as tenuous a moral connection as the one you made, in case this is still too subtle for you. Either everyone is responsible for all the unintended or lateral consequences of everything they believe and do, or else perhaps moral responsibility is a more complicated thing than your “all drug warriors shall hang!” rhetoric describes.

  10. And there is never, in these drug war discussions, even a mention of the possibility that the government should not be in the business of telling us what we may or may not ingest. The notion of self ownership and dominion over our own bodies is not even a consideration. Even the most “progressive” mainstream discussions of this issue never even approach considering things from a liberty and self ownership perspective. The single voice in the national discussion advocating the idea that individual liberty should be the guiding principle is Dr. Paul’s. People are too stupid to recognize that any notion of liberty or freedom without self ownership is absurd. You either own yourself, or other people own you and if other people own you, it is patently ridiculous to assert that this country has ANYTHING to do with liberty.

    1. Bravo. I think this may be the best post in the thread.

    2. But that perspective cuts off all discussion, so it’s no wonder the other stuff occupies 99% of verbal matter on the subject.

    3. Even the most “progressive” mainstream discussions of this issue never even approach considering things from a liberty and self ownership perspective.

      Progressive’s don’t believe in self-ownership. To them everything belongs to the state and everyone needs to do whatever there betters in charge tell them to do. That’s their version of freedom.

      1. In other words, they’re bottoms.

      2. Libertarians don’t believe in compassion. To them, even a night watchman state is one watchman too many. They believe that markets alone can cure all material insufficiency and can even spontaneously defeat segregation and slavery and solve collective action problems.

        That’s their version of freedom.

        1. Fuck off, shitty troll. Libertarians don’t believe in forcing people to act in ways that you happen to think are compassionate. Do you really fail to understand that people can believe in something without believing that it should be enforced by law and violence?

          1. I was pointing out, perhaps again too subtly for your impressive intellect, that such a statement could only be made by a person who has never at length spoken with a progressive about what they actually think, much as my statement (hereafter referred to as “the Parody”), blatantly parallel in structure and tone, could only be made by someone who has never talked at length with a libertarian about what they believe.

            Did that really go so far over your head, Zeb? Should my next parody be signposted for your benefit, so you don’t confuse it with something earnest?

  11. But they probably won’t turn to the United States for advice. Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations. At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America;

    Amazingly, this statistic required him to do nothing more than continue the policies of the previous two administrations.

    Way to go President Peanut, you spineless pissant.

  12. Drugs, drugs, drugs, why is that all libertarians care about? I’m so sick of it!

    Yes, I know life is depressing, I know taxes are high, I know government has their foot up your ass, but being stoned all day is not the solution!

    1. You know what the most pathetic type of troll is?

      The attention whore troll who keeps changing his name because LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME, otherwise some people might skip over what he writes, either manually or programatically.

      1. It worked.

    2. Not wanting the government to punish people for something does not equate to wanting people to do that something.

      If heroin were made legal would you run out and use it?

      If you answered no to that, why then do you assume that everyone else would?

      1. Good point.

    3. Grego, did it ever occur to you that the belief in self-ownership is rooted in something other than libertinism. As an example, I don’t partake in illicit substances anymore. I have in the past, but I was 100% in favor of ending the drug war prior to ever doing so. As me/dwc stated above, the fundamental claim here is liberty, and one cannot expect any liberty from the state in other realms of existence (economic, speech, association, diet, etc) if the govt can claim some compelling interest to regulate the way in which treat your own body.

    4. but being stoned all day is not the solution!

      But it’s part of it.

  13. At the Volokh Conspiracy about a week ago, someone pointed out that until about half a century ago, narcotics suppression worked very well. This led to discussion of what changed. I had my own ideas, but I’d be interested in seeing what people here think.

    1. Narcotics suppression in the past was primarily a function of culture, not government policy and enforcement.

      The culture changed and it became socially acceptable to use controlled substances.

      It is still not culturally acceptable to string one’s self out on heroin or smoke crack all day, and usage rates of these drugs is still low.

      It is culturally acceptable to consume marijuana, and usage is high.

      1. Absolutely.

        And it shows that communities, families, etc, are more effective at determining what substances are acceptable and leaving violent coercion out of the whole situation.

        1. Same could be said of marriage.

          Get the government out of it and let “communities, families, etc” determine what they determine to be acceptable.

    2. That point is pretty hotly contested by others in the thread at issue.

      Certain drugs like marijuana and heroin were fairly culturally specific in this country until the 1960s.

      The point might be more valid about cocaine, but the problem with that thesis is that cocaine was viewed as a medication until the early 20th Century, and not simply as a recreational drug.

      In any event, the distinction between alcohol and narcotics is a purely artificial one. You cannot reasonably argue for prohibition of one but not the other.

  14. At the Volokh Conspiracy about a week ago, someone pointed out that until about half a century ago, narcotics suppression worked very well.


  15. Jimma’s sportin’ a John Edwards ‘do.

  16. Carter hung around with Willie Nelson and the Allman Brothers, for what that’s worth.

    From my perspective, the War on Drugs didn’t go into turbo mode until the Reagan administration. The laws were in place before that, but the enforcement efforts and resources weren’t really. It was still mostly a state government issue in the ’70s, IIRC.

  17. The War on Drugs failed $1 Trillion ago! This money could have been used for outreach programs to clean up the bad end of drug abuse by providing free HIV testing, free rehab, and clean needles. Harmless drugs like marijuana could be legalized to help boost our damaged economy. Cannabis can provide hemp for countless natural recourses and the tax revenue from sales alone would pull every state in our country out of the red! Vote Teapot, PASS IT, and legalize it. Voice you opinion with the movement and read more on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot…..-2011.html

  18. He might be right to some extent, but the problem is, as in most things, money. The potential revenue from legalizing and taxing drugs may not cover the costs of treating the ones who use those drugs. When the money runs out, the policy will, in all likelihood, change.

  19. With all due respect, both for him and for Reason, Jimmy Carter should not head anyone’s list of good spokespeople for any cause — especially one as close to his major area of total cluelessness (foreign policy) as is the war on drugs.

    I once said Carter’s ineptitude would never be topped by a President in my lifetime. Now I’m no longer sure.

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