Sunday, December 04, 2005

A compendium of conservatives on drugs

Yesterday I posted on the new Tory policy of getting tough on drugs. On mandatory minimum sentences, and on not moving toward the "Liberal" policy of decriminalization of marijuana, or the "NDP" policy of legalizing it. I complained that legalization should be less associated with the NDP, than with the policy minds that are supposed to influence Conservative policy and opinion. The Fraser Institute, the Senate Committee, and so on.

No policy is more likely to rankle me than this one. To be sure, I support gay marriage, and think that this is a policy worthy of aggressive defence also, but the drug issue is more serious to me, since honest and intelligent policy advice is resoundingly in favour of legalization, and since the lives destroyed by this policy count in the millions. It is a disaster on a scale of massive proportion.

And this is coming from me, a fellow who doesn't smoke pot (tried it about five times), has never done other drugs, and would ground with impunity any son or daughter of mine who dabbled in anything more serious than marijuana and its derivatives (I really believe that marijuana is harmless, and is probably sometimes good for you. But that's another issue, for another time.)

Some time in the not-too-distant future, you will agree with me. Unless your fanaticism borders on the religious, the daily deluge of policy papers, academic scribblings, op-eds, medical journal findings, and public opinion polls which all point in a similar direction is bound to have an effect on you. If not today, then tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, then a week or month from now. And if you still think it a good idea to incarcerate pot smokers and growers twenty years from now, you will change your mind twenty years later. But the longer it takes for you to change your mind, the longer will this disaster of a policy continue. The longer will we have to put up with lives utterly ruined and destroyed by this policy.

This post is aimed at small- and big-c conservatives. At those who are conservative philosophically, and those who support the political party. It is not really intended for anyone else, since the authorities I cite, and the instances I give are tailored to convince conservatives, not liberals, socialists, and so on.

Thoughtful and intelligent conservatives agree that the war on drugs is a lost cause, and the source of a massive amount of injustice, crime, and loss of life (in both the literal, and figurative sense).

Milton Friedman, a hero to most conservatives, not only thinks the War on Drugs is a failure, he thinks it is immoral. When I asked him, citing a 1972 Newsweek article where he supported the legalization of drugs, if he still felt this way, his response was an unequivocal "Absolutely!" Hard drugs too?, I asked. "Absolutely." What about ethics?:
PJ: Now you also said in that same article that this was an ethical issue as well.
MF: Absolutely—I've just said it—what right does the government have to tell me what I may put in my mouth? If the government has the right to tell me what I may put in my mouth, why doesn't it have the right to tell me what I may put in my mind? There is, in my opinion, no government policy that is as immoral as drug prohibition...
(Friedman and Freedom, March 15, 2002)
Friedman headlined a list of 500 economists who supported a Marijuana Policy Project report, written by Jeffrey Miron of Harvard, urging American legislators to legalize marijuana. You might recognize some of these as heroes, too. The report says:
"The report shows that marijuana legalization -- replacing prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation -- would save $7.7 billion per year in state and federal expenditures on prohibition enforcement and produce tax revenues of at least $2.4 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like most consumer goods. If, however, marijuana were taxed similarly to alcohol or tobacco, it might generate as much as $6.2 billion annually.

The fact that marijuana prohibition has these budgetary impacts does not by itself mean prohibition is bad policy. Existing evidence, however, suggests prohibition has minimal benefits and may itself cause substantial harm."
(Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition, June, 2005)

But Friedman, strictly speaking, is a libertarian, not a conservative. Although he's a hero to both, you might think of him as being only conservative by overlap. Would you say the same of the National Review? You probably have the magazine bookmarked, if you're a Canadian Tory. Here is the hallmark publication of the conservative movement proper. No chance of finding many libertarians sympathetic to this magazine, which is more likely to spit on libertarians as make common cause with them. But they don't spit so much when it comes to drugs. Instead, they support legalization:
" is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far."
(War on drugs is lost, Feb. 12, 1996)
Was the good ship S.S. NR rudderless? Was William F. Buckley, the founder and steerer, in the background pulling his hair as his editorial board veers away from his considered judgment? Was Buckley outvoted on the issue, and the magazine presented an opinion vastly different from his? Not so. Here's Buckley himself:
"I leave it at this, that it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana. I would hope that the good offices of your vital profession would mobilize at least to protest such excesses of wartime zeal, the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre. And perhaps proceed to recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors."
(Ibid, a speech before the NY Bar Association)
The Economist doesn't flinch from the subject. The magazine most likely to be found on the shelves of intelligent conservatives and libertarians (amongst a host of others who are serious about economics) agrees: The War on Drugs is a bad idea.
"The best answer is to move slowly but firmly to dismantle the edifice of enforcement. Start with the possession and sale of cannabis and amphetamines, and experiment with different strategies... Move on to hard drugs, sold through licensed outlets. These might be pharmacies or, suggests Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Centre, mail-order distributors...
"John Stuart Mill was right. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. Trade in drugs may be immoral or irresponsible, but it should no longer be illegal."
(Set it free, July 26, 2001)
Meanwhile, here in Canada, the newspapers conservatives are most likely to subscribe to urge legalization. The National Post has issued at least two editorials in favour of legalization. One, simply titled "Time to Legalize Pot," says:
"Marijuana legalization has long been the subject of academic debate. The time has come to turn conjecture into law. Canada's police, judges and prosecutors have better things to do with their time than track down those who produce and consume a substance no more dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. We should begin the decriminalization of marijuana by immediately reducing the punishments that can be imposed for its possession to modest fines -- and start thinking about how to regulate its use."
(Time to Legalize Pot, April 1, 2000)
And here's a snippet from "Pointless Prohibition":
"The only sensible course of action is to end the pointless prohibition of a substance that is neither more dangerous nor more addictive than alcohol or tobacco, and one that has reportedly been smoked by more than 10 million Canadians at some point in their lives... It's time to make official what Vancouver's authorities have evidently already accepted, and legalize marijuana." (Pointless Prohibition, Sep. 7, 2004)
The Ottawa Citizen, another staple in the conservative newspaper diet, ran a series of four editorials urging an end to the war on drugs. Here are some excerpts:
"Too often, our political culture equates legalizing drugs with being soft on criminals. But it is criminalization, not legalization, that guarantees wealth and power for gangs and pushers. We will argue Monday that it need not be this way."
(Decriminalizing Drugs, April 12, 1997)
How appropriate is this first line in light of the recent Tory announcement about drugs?... Here's more:
"The recent history of drug enforcement, both in Canada and the United States, is largely a record of failure. Tax dollars are lavished on enforcement. Police powers are expanded at the expense of civil liberties. Criminal gangs grow richer. And drug use goes on regardless."
(Decriminalizing Drugs II, April 14, 1997)
"But people constantly engage in any number of activities that, like drug use, physically endanger only themselves but risk inflicting emotional trauma on others should something go wrong: scuba diving, skiing, driving Highway 401. Others may be traumatized when sons marry outside the family religion, daughters form sexual relationships with other women, or parents divorce. With harm stretched beyond its original, liberal meaning, almost any activity that attracted a vociferous lobby group and applause-seeking politicians could be outlawed. If we are to have a free society in any meaningful sense, J.S. Mill's great liberal maxim must be re-invigorated, but with the original, narrow definition of harm intact. And Canada, secure in the knowledge of what is right in a free society, should allow its citizens to make their own decisions about whether or not to use drugs."
(Decriminalizing Drugs III, April 15, 1997)
And in the conclusion of the 4-part series, the Ottawa Citizen puts nails in what should have been a coffin:

"The history of drug use confirms that we will never live in a drug-free society: Too many people inevitably just say yes. But we can have a society in which the worst effects of drug addiction are minimized, and those who are addicted are helped. We can have a society where mafia and biker gangs are not made rich and powerful by the ban on drugs.

Most importantly, we can have a society where the criminal law reflects not expediency and prejudice but principle. We can work toward a society clearly and consistently founded on the great liberal maxim of John Stuart Mill, that: "The individual is not accountable to society for his actions, insofar as these concern the interests of no person but himself.""
(Decriminalizing Drugs IV, April 16, 1997)

Stephen Easton, writing a Fraser Institute policy paper, thinks the enemy (drugs) has won. That's right, the Fraser Institute, Canada's most important free market think tank, the place most likely to draw the smartest and best conservatives (and libertarians) in this country.
“If we treat marijuana like any other commodity we can tax it, regulate it, and use the resources the industry generates rather than continue a war against consumption and production that has long since been lost... It is apparent that we are reliving the experience of alcohol prohibition of the early years of the last century.”
(BC's marijuana crop worth over 7 billion annually, June 9, 2004)
The Cato Institute has many friends in conservative circles. But they have been fierce on the issue. They support the legalization of all drugs. They've issued plenty of policy documents, but I will cite just one:
"By now, there can be little doubt that most, if not all, "drug-related murders" are the result of drug prohibition. The same type of violence came with the Eighteenth Amendment's ban of alcohol in 1920. The murder rate rose with the start of Prohibition, remained high during Prohibition, and then declined for 11 consecutive years when Prohibition ended.[2] The rate of assaults with a firearm rose with Prohibition and declined for 10 consecutive years after Prohibition. In the last year of Prohibition--1933--there were 12,124 homicides and 7,863 assaults with firearms; by 1941 these figures had declined to 8,048 and 4,525, respectively...

In spite of the greatest anti-drug enforcement effort in U.S. history, the drug problem is worse than ever. What should be done now?... The status quo is intolerable--everyone agrees on that. But there are only two alternatives: further escalate the war on drugs, or legalize them. Once the public grasps the consequences of escalation, legalization may win out by default."
(Thinking about drug legalization, May 25, 1989)

There's plenty more where that came from.

In a subsequent post, I will expand on the second sense of the title of this post (yup, it's a double entendre).

Still think the war on drugs is a good idea? You swim against the tide of considered conservative opinion, my friend.

Soon, you'll be swimming alone.


Blogger Ken D said...

Great post Peter!

While I definately support the party, this is the one aspect of the party that I'm most at odds with. Good work compiling all that research together.

8:53 PM  
Blogger ALW said...

No argument there at all, Peter. None. This war on drugs albatross has to go. Sadly, I think it's several elections away.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Stephen Taylor said...


A great post. Required reading for all Conservative candidates.

10:23 PM  
Anonymous ollivia said...

it's funny that this issue rattles you so much... those who choose to be involved with drugs in their homes or in some other private place will rarely get into trouble regardless of the ferociousness of any given drug "war" policy. it's those who try to make a living off of it (Emery and/or drug cartels) or those who explicitly rebuke the laws whom will be disciplined accordingly. drug use is like sex, i think, do it with whomever you want, how ever you want, but not necessarily where ever you want. after all, drugs are an elective in life... there are much more important liberties the government could be attacking.

11:01 PM  
Blogger P. M. Jaworski said...

Thanks, gents, for the kind words.

ollivia: Thanks for reading my blog. Take your analogy and push it a bit: suppose sex was illegal, just like drugs. Wouldn't you support it's legalization?

I hope so...

11:40 PM  
Anonymous ollivia said...

say sex is illegal... is the fear that cops are going to break into people's homes, unprovoked, to arrest them? it’s just not feasible. let them make sex illegal, and then make them go put some teeth to the law. remember the issue is celerity, not severity. some sex is already illegal, anyway. sex for money, for instance, in the states. or having sex in the middle of the street – indecent exposure in a public place/ public indecency.

those who do drugs without flaunting it don't have anything to worry about. i know tons and tons of people who do drugs all the time, and all sorts of drugs; i know very few who are worried about going to jail (even though the laws are very severe).a policy is inherently flawed if it can’t be enforced. your concern must be for the seller or the grower or the, i don’t know who exactly…

9:39 AM  
Blogger Liam O'Brien said...

I can't deny that this is something that is gaining steam. As it gains steam, it's only right that a real democracy change its laws to reflect society.

Let me first get some kinks out of the hose:

1. Scotch/Irish whiskies and fatty foods are my drugs of choice. I've never tried marijuana. I have friends who have tried it. I've never understood its appeal.

2. I've never undersood why this cause is such a big issue for anyone, be they left wing, right wing, libertarian, or whatever. It's just not that important to me one way or the other. Most people who use do so without ever ever ever facing any trouble with the law or anyone else .

But since we're here now talking about policy and law, lets have a go .

First, I think it's important that advocates of legalization or decriminalization not make too many generalizations about the effects of marijuana. It's not "harmless."

A study by the British Lung Foundation found that just three cannabis joints a
day cause the same damage as 20 cigarettes.

Potency of Marijuana in general is increasing...

According to data from the Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project, the
average potency of samples of all cannabis types increased from 3% in
1991 to 5.2% in 2001. The potency of commercial-grade marijuana
increased from 3.1% to 5% during the same period. In the late 1970s
and early 1980s, commercial-grade marijuana THC levels were under 2%.
The concentration of THC in sinsemilla was about 6% in the late 1970s
and early 1980s, and averaged more than 9% in 2001.

Those numbers are significant when one considers the chemicals

That's not to say that these types of findings alone means that possession should be totally illegal. It's just that the same society that professes to care about consistency and professes to vehemently dislike cigarettes/tobacco should be aware of the contradiction in its direction re each of those two substances (Marijuana versus tobacco).

Also, I think Stephen Harper and others would do well to be mindful of the concerns that many Canadians who are in no way shape or form affected by these laws one way or the other but who are concerned about the possible implications drug law liberalization would have for trade/border crossing with our largest trading partner. To crudely parse the words of Smith, Mill, Fridman, and others, there's nothing wrong with pursuing one's own self interest. For the majority of Canadians that aren't affected by weed laws in a major way, they might see that trade/border issue as more directly affecting their self interests. I can understand their concern.

You quoted from a very interesting article that included an address from William F. Buckley. I'd also like to offer some of his introductory words:

"About ten years later, I deferred to a different allegiance, this one not the presumptive opposition to state intervention, but a different order of priorities. A conservative should evaluate the practicality of a legal constriction, as for instance in those states whose statute books continue to outlaw sodomy, which interdiction is unenforceable, making the law nothing more than print-on-paper. I came to the conclusion that the so-called war against drugs was not working, that it would not work absent a change in the structure of the civil rights to which we are accustomed and to which we cling as a valuable part of our patrimony. And that therefore if that war against drugs is not working, we should look into what effects the war has, a canvass of the casualties consequent on its failure to work. That consideration encouraged me to weigh utilitarian principles: the Benthamite calculus of pain and pleasure introduced by the illegalization of drugs."

I submit that the calculation is somewhat different in Canada. The penalties are not the same. Even the smoke blown by Harper doesn't compare to those laws that brought about Buckley's reaction. While I admire or respect certain conservatives very much -- Buckley and Harper being two of them -- I will still evaluate each issue based on their arguments. As such I'll take Buckley's principle and apply it to a different Canadian context and decide if I agree. I sometimes disagree with many of these guys. I certain disagreed with Harper's approach to Quebec issues. . .

I still do not believe that it's correct to wholeheartedly abandon the fight on other substances. In fact, I think that Crystal Meth, Oxyconin, and other such things are getting worse (in part) because of our society's lax attitude when it comes to the basic rules and norms surrounding these sorts of substances. Cocaine, Heroin, and others are still there too. People are understandably upset.

Canada is in a whole other place on issues of drugs. A Dangerous place. A place that tolerates and sends mixed messages about some dangerous substances and activities. This spring, the city of Ottawa decided to continue handing out free crack pipes to chronic crack users. It's lunacy. Even the addicts think these bleeding heart people are nuts.

Decriminalization of small amounts, shfiting administrative and enfrcement focus elsewhere (particularly to large shipments accross borders), and other changes, make sense to me. It may come to a point, as our trading partners consider progressing on this point, that more and more can be done.

So far, the two most compelling arguments you've offered on legalization are cost to the state and property rights. Both appeal to fiscal conservatives. We can address them in a very real way without full legalization right now.

You're certainly right, though, that this one will change with time. I may not see it as a terribly important issue, but I do see it as one where attitudes will change over time.

10:55 AM  
Blogger mostlyfree said...

Great post, Peter.

There isn't much I like more than a(n extremely) thorough thrashing of a stupid policy decision.

The only consolation I get is that, as you mentioned, within 50 years (at most, I think/hope) this won't even be an issue.

It's a real shame to see the CPC putting out this kind of policy.

11:38 AM  

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