Grilling the drug czar: My favorite blog post. Ever.

To people who are unfamiliar with my views, I thought this would help orient you: an America’s Finest Blog item from Oct. 4, 2007.

I’ve looked forward to interviewing the U.S. drug czar for years, and Tuesday afternoon I finally got the chance when current czar John Walters visited with the U-T editorial board. I’m happy to note that he took my libertarian griping seriously; many drug warriors seem amazed that anyone could suggest that the drug war is futile, costly, counterproductive and hypocritical, and often amounts to an assault on civil liberties. I said to Walters that by any possible statistical reckoning of deaths, car wrecks, suicides, drownings, crimes of violence, etc., alcohol is vastly more destructive in the U.S. than all illegal drugs combined. I asked if he disputed this.

He didn’t answer me directly even after I reposed the question. Basically, he said that while alcohol may be a big and destructive problem, the fact that alcohol is legal doesn’t mean you don’t try to reduce the use of other, illegal drugs. He said “the danger of marijuana today” is far greater than in the old days, thanks to its potency.

Did he in any way acknowledge the oddity of having a war on drugs that don’t kill all that many people while tolerating drugs (alcohol, tobacco) which fill up graveyards 24-7?

I said that many libertarians object to the drug war not just on the grounds that government shouldn’t tell people what they can put in their bodies but on the grounds that the execution of the drug war routinely involves assaults on civil liberties. I cited past drug czars’ eager touting of confiscation policies, in which a family could lose its only car without even a court hearing if one member were caught driving the car while in possession of pot. Did he see the drug war as diminishing civil liberties?

Walters offered a broad defense of asset-forfeiture tactics as being “designed to reduce the demand in a tangible way. … I’m not going to say” that “laws sometimes aren’t misapplied,” but claims that civil liberties are a routine victim of the drug war are “great misrepresentations” and a “great mischaracterization.”

He said the “magnitude of the injustice” suffered in some cases was exaggerated.

I wanted to get to other questions before our time ran out, so I didn’t ask him the obvious follow-up about the fact that no one is actually ever charged with a crime in many asset forfeiture cases, and that there is plenty of evidence that giving police agencies a motive to seize property (they can sell it later and add to their budgets) is a horrible idea.

Then I got into Milton Friedman’s critique of the drug war, noting the evidence that the drug war — by making popular intoxicants illegal and only available via a highly lucrative black market — was responsible for lots of crimes beyond buying and selling, and that it had led to police corruption, among many other unintended consequences. I asked what he would do to combat drugs if could start over from scratch.

He said “the problem is not that we make drugs a crime; it is that drugs are catalysts to crime.” And he said what “the facts really say” is that Milton Friendman’s criticisms of the drug war were “untrue — demonstrably untrue.”

Here’s what Friedman had to say in Newsweek in 1972 as the drug war was first gearing up:

“Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and raise the quality of law enforcement. Can you conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order?

“But, you may say, must we accept defeat? Why not simply end the drug traffic? That is where experience under Prohibition is most relevant. We cannot end the drug traffic. We may be able to cut off opium from Turkey but there are innumerable other places where the opium poppy grows. With French cooperation, we may be able to make Marseilles an unhealthy place to manufacture heroin but there are innumerable other places where the simple manufacturing operations involved can be carried out. So long as large sums of money are involved — and they are bound to be if drugs are illegal — it is literally hopeless to expect to end the traffic or even to reduce seriously its scope. In drugs, as in other areas, persuasion and example are likely to be far more effective than the use of force to shape others in our image.”

Still looks “literally hopeless” to me. Walters offered stats showing declining use of certain illegal drugs, but so have past drug czars — and guess what? New drug crazes emerged like clockwork (meth, oxycontin, etc.). Has the basic human interest in altered consciousness ever waned? Of course not.

Here’s what Friedman wrote in 1992 as a follow-up to his 1972 Newsweek column:

“Very few words in that column would have to be changed for it to be publishable today. The problem then was primarily heroin and the chief source of the heroin was Marseilles. Today, the problem is cocaine from Latin America. Aside from that, nothing would have to be changed.

“Here it is almost twenty years later. What were then predictions are now observable results. As I predicted in that column, on the basis primarily of our experience with Prohibition, drug prohibition has not reduced the number of addicts appreciably if at all and has promoted crime and corruption.”

Here’s what Friedman wrote in 1991 about the vast toll the drug war took on the poor, especially minorities:

“We can stop destroying the possibility of a decent family life among the underprivileged in this country. I do not agree with many people who would agree with me on that point about the role that government ought to play in the treatment of addiction. I do not agree either with those who say that the tragedy of the slums is really a social problem, that the underprivileged do not have enough jobs and therefore government has to provide them with jobs. I want to tell those people that government performance is no better in creating jobs and solving other social problems than it is in drug prohibition.”

It is 2007, and nearly 30 percent of young African-American males in many cities are in jail, on probation or on parole, and the drug war is the main reason. It is 2007, and it is still common to hear black youths and young adults describe an urban lifestyle so barren that pro sports and drug dealing are the only way out. Is Milton Friedman “demonstrably untrue” in warning of the drug war’s collateral damage in ghettos? Of course not.

Here’s what Friedman wrote in 1988 about a huge problem with the drug war that’s rarely mentioned:

“Legalizing drugs would reduce enormously the number of victims of drug use who are not addicts: people who are mugged, people who are corrupted, the reduction of law and order because of the corruption of law enforcement, and the allocation of a very large fraction of law enforcement resources to this one particular activity.”

Is he wrong again? Hardly. Especially after 9/11, our eagerness to spend billions a week to wage an unwinnable war on drugs is simultaneously wasteful, irrational and dangerous.

Walters didn’t say what he would do to reduce destructive drug use if he could start from scratch. He seems to believe in the status quo.

Why? Because in fighting the drug war, ”There are clear signs of progress.”

No, that wasn’t just the sort of thing Walters said Tuesday. That was President George H.W. Bush talking in 1990 on the first anniversary of his appointment of the first drug czar, Bill Bennett. Similar claims came out of the Clinton administration in 1997 after stepped-up cooperation with Mexico. Now we’re hearing the same from this Bush administration.

This isn’t even Orwellian; it’s too simple-minded. We are making progress in the drug war, the government tells us, now and always.

Shouldn’t perpetual progress at some point add up to something substantial and significant? Shouldn’t perpetual progress mean at some point, a la the “defense dividend” after the end of the Cold War, that we can spend less on the drug war?

Why, of course not. Such questions aren’t helpful. What’s important, after all, is that we are making progress in the drug war. Just look at our charts and graphs.

The mind reels. The only thing “demonstrably untrue” about Milton Friedman’s drug-war critique is the idea that it has been discredited.

Comments are closed.