I’ve enjoyed debating about public policy for nearly half as long as I’ve been alive. During that time, I’ve had impassioned and engaging arguments about almost every conceivable political issue. The War on Drugs, however, is an exception. Frankly, the topic is kind of boring.
Nearly everyone in America learned about the prohibition of alcohol during their middle school history class and/or from watching mob films. We all know it was a calamitous failure that made the problem enormously worse at everyone’s expense. As John D. Rockefeller Jr. wrote in 1932, “a vast army of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale.”
Consequently, after a few minutes of conversation, I find that most people reluctantly admit they can see no reason to treat drugs differently. When someone does persist in defending drug prohibition, they often say something like, “I see what you’re saying, but it just feels wrong.”
Moreover, supporters of drug prohibition will rarely say they want to ban tobacco, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “the single most preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States.” When your only real opponents don’t even pretend to be consistent in their non-argument, the subject gets pretty dull.
On any other major topic, I can name a public figure with whom I strongly disagree yet nonetheless consider clever and eloquent. I don’t imagine that anyone, however, has ever heard a clever or eloquent defense of drug prohibition.
Even if the column opposite mine makes an extraordinary case for drug laws, the reason these laws persist is not that we’ve all been consciously persuaded of their efficacy. Rather, our trusting character assumes that there is rhyme and reason where none actually exists. Drug prohibition is, to borrow a phrase from the cult film “Cube,” “a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan.”
Earlier this month, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in the national spotlight after a judge struck down his proposed ban on super-sized sugary drinks. According to a March 2012 CBS New York article, the judge said the regulation was both “capricious” and “arbitrary.” Although Americans likely tend to agree, we’re every bit as capricious and arbitrary concerning our drug policy.
We all know that super-sized sugary drinks are bad for us, but the notion that politicians should be babysitting us by taking them away is transparently absurd. This doesn’t stop us, however, from spending copious amounts of money locking up adults to protect them from their own mistakes.
Likewise, though most people are appalled at the notion of cigarettes falling into the hands of small children, we do not think this is grounds for a federal ban on cigarettes. It’s only when we talk about illegal drugs, which kill fewer people, that this argument magically begins to apply.
When I argue in favor of decreasing the role of the government, I often find that my opponents imagine that I’m idealistically espousing a set of principles and ignoring practical results. In my view, the opposite is true. My desire for personal liberty is grounded in a recognition that man is imperfectible.
There will always be drug abusers. It’s not possible for politicians to change that and I wouldn’t trust them with the power to do so if it were. Those who imagine that a benevolent government will one day preside over 300 million drug-free Americans have a ludicrous utopian vision. Like the temperance movement of the 1920s, their goals are so impossible that they are dangerous.
There is, however, one important difference between 1920s alcohol prohibition and drug laws today: we cannot accuse those who banned alcohol of ignoring history.
Ian Huyett is a senior in political science and anthropology. Please send comments to email@example.com.