The nation is engaged in a historic and vital debate these days: how much liberty must we sacrifice to attain security in the wake of the September 11 hijackings and subsequent anthrax attacks? In the name of security, Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice has implemented procedures, apparently without much criticism or resistance, for carrying out actions such as secret arrests, indeterminate detentions, and, more recently, eavesdropping on communications between arrestees and their lawyers without a court order. But he’s failed to propose the one initiative that would substantially increase liberty and public safety, and would do so almost instantly: ending the war on drugs.
Since the Nixon administration, the federal government, aided by local law-enforcement efforts in all 50 states, has fought a "war on drugs" that has burned through an unfathomable amount of money, decimated both privacy rights previously guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment and criminal-procedure due-process rights assured by the Fifth, and turned millions of otherwise productive and law-abiding citizens into felons. Indeed, by branding so many with felony convictions, the war on drugs has deprived more citizens of the right to vote than any electoral anomalies such as Palm Beach County’s famed "butterfly ballot" in the last presidential election.
Ending the war on drugs (while leaving in place laws that regulate prescription drugs) would accomplish three things:
• The price of currently illegal narcotics and hallucinogens — which have financed terrorist efforts around the world — would plummet. It’s widely recognized that terrorist groups all over the globe support their causes largely from the proceeds of narcotics traffic. Indeed, in his remarkably eloquent, insightful, and nuanced November 10 speech before the United Nations, President Bush noted that the Taliban government has supported itself at least in part by "dealing in heroin." Just a few minutes later, he said that "every United Nations member has a responsibility to crack down on terrorist financing." Yet Bush failed to make the connection between the two. There is only one quick, sure-fire way to eliminate the use of drug money to finance terrorism: make the commodities legal. Overnight, such a step would eliminate the inflated prices paid by the Western world for black-market drugs.
• Much of the pressure on citizens’ constitutional rights in recent decades would evaporate. It’s bad enough that we must tolerate unprecedented incursions into our privacy rights at airports, on the telephone, on the Internet, at traffic stops and road blocks, and elsewhere. But we should no longer tolerate the specter of police breaking down citizens’ doors to round up pot smokers and stopping cars on the New Jersey Turnpike looking for cocaine. It is one thing to endure a pat-down search on a street corner because police are looking for anthrax; it is quite another when the officer is looking for a small glassine bag containing some euphoria-inducing substance that people use voluntarily and knowingly.
• Precious resources deployed to eliminate what John Stuart Mill called "self-regarding conduct" — activity that gives pleasure, and admittedly in some cases pain, to those who engage in it, but does not hurt anyone else — could be re-directed to the war on terrorism. We must increase the number of law-enforcement people participating in what almost all Americans agree is a war that must be won, without increasing the total number we must hire and pay. We don’t need more FBI agents and cops; rather, we need current law-enforcement professionals to do more productive things than busting drug users and dealers. Our vast foreign-intelligence operation, which now tracks drug smugglers, could be put to much more productive use. Indeed, there is already talk of taking drug law enforcement away from the FBI and placing it with another agency. It was shifted to the FBI only a few years ago from the then quasi-independent but corruption-ridden Drug Enforcement Administration. Better now just to end the volleyball game and relegate the whole effort to history’s dustbin, where it belongs.
The war on drugs has been enormously costly and self-destructive. The terrorist assault on our homeland should, at long last, focus our attention and our resources on the things that really count. We can no longer afford to conduct a war on drugs that drains scarce public resources while assaulting our own citizens’ rights. As we look around for ways to enhance security while preserving liberty, we need to remember the observation suggested by the old Pogo comic strip: "We have met the enemy, and it is us." We need to focus on the real enemy. The war on drugs should end.