Drug Policy

Former Drug Czar Likens Legal Marijuana Merchants to Afghan Warlords

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ONDCP

John P. Walters, George W. Bush's drug czar, provides further evidence of prohibitionists' intellectual bankruptcy: an essay in Politico that supposedly explains "Why Libertarians Are Wrong About Drugs." His argument is persuasive as long as you accept two false premises:

1. Drug use is drug abuse.

"There is ample experience that a drug user harms not only himself, but also many others," Walters writes. "The association between drug use and social and economic failure, domestic violence, pernicious parenting and criminal acts while under the influence is grounds for prohibition even if we accept no responsibility for what the drug user does to himself. The drug user's freedom to consume costs his community not only their safety, but also their liberty."

According to Walters, all illegal drug use, regardless of dose, administration method, or context, harms both the user and other people. As I show in my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, that absolutist position flies in the face of everyday experience as well as research on patterns of drug consumption. The vast majority of illegal drug users, like the vast majority of drinkers, do not inflict any serious harm on themselves or others.

2. Drugs cause addiction, and addiction is slavery.

"Libertarians have yet to grasp just how much drug abuse undermines individual freedom and erodes the very core of the libertarian ideal," Walters writes. "If an essential predicate of libertarian society is the willing, rational actor, capable of weighing and understanding consequences, what's left when this condition is absent?"

As I argue in Saying Yes, addiction is not a chemical compulsion; it is a pattern of behavior affected by many factors other than the drug itself, including the user's personality, tastes, preferences, intentions, and environment. This much is obvious to most people (and maybe even to Walters) when it comes to alcohol; it is equally true of the intoxicants that are currently illegal.

Contrary to Walters' description, addicts do not lose all volition. They respond to incentives, as demonstrated by Carl Hart's research with heavy crack and methamphetamine users; they modify their behavior as circumstances change, as demonstrated by Vietnam veterans who gave up heroin when they returned to the United States; and they quit or cut back when they have a strong enough reason to do so, as demonstrated by every former smoker and every reckless drunk who learned to consume alcohol responsibly. Even if the possibility of addiction were an adequate justification for prohibition, the laws Walters is defending, which allow alcohol while banning many substances that are less commonly used to excess, still would make no sense.

These myths have been familiar themes of prohibitionist propaganda in the United States for at least a century. Walters also employs a slightly newer rhetorical trick, posing a series of supposedly baffling questions about how the currently illegal drugs would be distributed if prohibition were repealed, as if Americans have no experience with legal intoxicant markets. "Management of production and distribution, some envision, could be commercial," he writes. "What could go wrong? Think Afghan warlord with a lobbying arm and a marketing department."

I am currently visiting Denver, where I have met a bunch of very nice people who make a living in Colorado's newly legal marijuana industry. Except for an occasional beard, not one of them resembled an Afghan warlord. Even if the current crop of mom-and-pop operations eventually gives way to much bigger businesses, the appropriate analogy will be Anheuser-Busch, or maybe Walmart, not the Taliban.

Walters is so confused about what is going on in Colorado that he presents it as an alternative to commercial production and distribution. "Perhaps, as with marijuana in Colorado," he says, "the state itself will run the show." The state is "run[ning] the show" in Colorado only in the sense that it is laying down rules for private businesses to follow, just as it does with every other industry. Some of those rules are unreasonably restrictive, if not downright silly, but regulation is not the same as a government-run monopoly.  

Speaking of silly, Walters claims "there is evidence that, in some places, suicide bombers, youth warriors, child sex slaves and even manual laborers are given drugs to keep them captive." What does that have to do with the question of whether the government should use force to prevent free adults from consuming drugs that John Walters does not like?

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  1. “There is ample experience that a drug user harms not only himself, but also many others”

    Not by definition or by nature though, so the argument fails right there without any further analysis necessary. If we are to ban things based on what outcomes they might cause for some people, well there’s not a lot you can’t justify banning. Also worth mentioning that social and economic failure, whatever the fuck that even means, isn’t criminal, and every other crime he mentions is, in point of fact, already illegal, whether sober or not. If you get coked up and go on a rape spree, or start robbing 7-11’s to fund your meth habit, you’ve committed the same crimes of rape and robbery as if you had gone on a stone cold sober raping spree or robbed a 7-11 to pay your mortgage and put food on your table. Punish people for the crimes they commit, on drugs or not. Don’t punish them for using drugs on the supposition that they will commit those crimes at some point in the future.

    1. You see this all the time with prosecutors. The only people who they know that do drugs are criminals, therefore drugs cause everyone to be criminals. They’ve never hung out and got high with multitudes of folks all of whom are law abiding citizens except for their drug use. Those represent the vast majority of people who do drugs and who people like this will never know. They may know them, they just don’t know they do drugs. Although even if they were aware of this I’m not sure it would matter since they go through life with blinders on.

  2. Walters claims “there is evidence that, in some places, suicide bombers, youth warriors, child sex slaves and even manual laborers are given drugs to keep them captive.”

    OH MY GOD!! He convinced me right there! We should ban everything ever associated with human trafficking. Starting with the United States dollar. Then the Internet. Then boats. And trucks. Electricity! We should roll back civilization to pre-Stone Age times just so human traffickers won’t have any access to anything to help them.

    Wait, no. That won’t do! We should as a species just completely kill ourselves off! Right now! The human brain is the greatest human trafficking tool ever, after all.

    What an effing doofus.

  3. Nice try, Sullum. You’re not fooling anyone. This is an Onion article.

    Seriously, is there any point in fisking this nonsense? It’s so stupid as to be laughable. I’d hope nobody would actually take it seriously.

    1. Agreed.
      Summary: ‘I think drugs are bad and here’s every possible bit of nonsense I can imagine to back that up!’

  4. It would seem the only real requirement to be drug czar is the ability to spout anti-drug nonsense with a straight face…

  5. Nixon coined the term “war on drugs” in 1971. That’s a 43 year war by the pious freedom crushing life destroying hypocrites on the citizens of the United States because free people are (gasp) doing what they want. In fact despite all the lives destroyed (NOT by drugs but by the “criminal justice” system) people are still willing to do whatever it takes to do as they please. And yet they persist.

    But hey look at all the money they’re making in this war. Look at all the military mission creep that’s infected law enforcement. Look at how “important” it makes these bureaucrats feel. That’s way more important than destroying lives and breaking up families.

  6. “There is ample experience that a drug user harms not only himself, but also many others,” Walters wrote. Then he went out and had a martini, like the soulless monster he is.

  7. Here’s an idea: how about, unless you have some kind of degree in neuropsychopharmacology, you just don’t talk about drugs like you know things about them. Period.

    God forbid people actually be educated and know things about a field they claim to understand…

  8. Why does the media give these Prohibitionist parasites a pulpit. A one line mention saying “Former drug czar still committed to lying and spewing propaganda” would suffice.

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