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?