Drug Policy

Former Drug Czar John Walters: Dumber Than You May Think

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In a new Weekly Standard essay, former drug czar John P. Walters explains why the idea of legalizing drugs is "Dumber Than You May Think." And not only dumb. "Irresponsible talk of legalization weakens public resolve against use and addiction," he warns. "It attacks the moral clarity that supports responsible behavior and the strength of key institutions. Talk of legalization today has a real cost to our families and families in other places. The best remedy would be some thoughtful reflection on the drug problem and what we say about it."

Walters does not lead by example. He claims, predictably, that repealing prohibition would cause a surge in addiction, which is not necessarily true and in any case hardly proves that prohibition is morally justified or worth its cost. His main argument seems to be that opposing the war on drugs is irresponsible because it undermines the war on drugs, which has been much more successful than commonly acknowledged. Illegal drug use has declined since 1979, he says, thanks to "tougher laws, popular disapproval of drug use, and powerful demand reduction measures" as well as "successful attacks on supply?."

While survey data do indicate that illegal drug use is less common today than it was in 1979, Walters presents no evidence that government policy is responsible for this trend. Marijuana use, for example, started falling in 1980, before Ronald Reagan took office and well before his ramped-up war on drugs could possibly have had an impact. Contrary to Walters' claim that "successful attacks on supply" have reduced cocaine use (which peaked around 1985), in  2007 he himself had to concede that, despite the much-ballyhooed Plan Colombia, cocaine prices were down while purity was up. Walters brags about "the successful attack on meth production in the United States," which mostly has served to consolidate the Mexican cartels' domination of the market, with no discernible impact on consumption (which was falling before the meth crackdown). And if supply reduction has been successful in discouraging marijuana use, why are Walters and other drug warriors constantly complaining that pot today is so much stronger than it used to be? By their lights, that surely is not a sign of success. More generally, the economics of the black market—the multiplicity of potential sources and smuggling routes, the high ratio of retail prices to production costs, and the fact that almost all of a drug's value is added after it is broken down into relatively small packages—doom supply reduction as a long-term strategy. 

But let's say Walters is right that beefed-up enforcement has reduced drug consumption. Why is that necessarily a good thing? Like all orthodox drug warriors, Walters equates use with abuse, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to be that stupid. Whatever your views about the propriety of pharmacological paternalism, it surely matters whether the decline in drug use has been mainly among casual pot smokers and coke sniffers rather than homeless heroin addicts and emaciated speed freaks. From a utilitarian perspective, the measure of success should be a net reduction in harm, including the harm caused by prohibition itself (which is not doing any favors for heroin addicts and speed freaks). Preventing drug use that would have enhanced people's lives undermines that goal. 

As far as prohibition-related harm goes, Walters concedes that "the cartels and violent gangs gain money from the drug trade" but dismisses that point as unimportant, since "they engage in the full range of criminal activities?." He likewise is unimpressed by the boost that alcohol prohibition gave to organized crime in the United States, because "criminal organizations existed before and after prohibition." In other words, as long as criminals exist, we might as well give them new profit opportunities—and new reasons for violence of the sort that has killed 50,000 or so people in Mexico since the end of 2006—by creating black markets. Walters presumably would have a similar response to the concern that prohibition fosters official corruption: As long as corruption exists, why not have more of it? Likewise, since police are always eager for excuses to override people's civil liberties, why not give them a mission to break up consensual activities that everyone involved wants to keep private? And since drug use is potentially dangerous, why not make it more dangerous by forcing consumers into a violent black market where they have to contend with uscrupulous sellers, unreliable quality, and unpredictable doses while risking arrest for behavior that violates no one's rights? Contrary to Walters' claim that drugs "victimize" people, I have never seen a joint beat the crap out of anyone; I cannot say the same about cops.

Speaking of which, Walters never addresses the morality of using force to stop people from consuming substances that might do them harm, except to suggest that the half a million or so drug offenders behind bars, and the millions more arrested and imprisoned over the years, pretty much had it coming. "With rare exceptions," he says, "the criminal justice system is not convicting the innocent." Granted that most people convicted of drug offenses really did commit drug offenses, the question remains: Is this a legitimate use of the criminal justice system? Is it just to punish people for engaging in peaceful, voluntary exchanges with other adults, simply because the transactions involve products that offend politicians? Walters is not interested in such questions. Instead he audaciously proclaims that drug prohibition, which draws utterly arbitrary distinctions between tolerable and intolerable intoxicants, must be maintained for the sake of "moral clarity."