As I think about the issues that Americans argue about, I’m often amused at how little the debate has changed since I first became politically aware. One of the debates that has remained relatively constant is the battle over drug legalization. Up until quite recently this conversation was framed as largely a left versus right issue and only those commie liberals wanted to legalize drugs.
But thanks to the growing liberty-oriented wing of conservatism, this narrative is up for debate again. Conservatives’ attitudes toward drugs are softening, evidenced by a poll out of the recently-completed CPAC conference. In a poll of conference attendees, 62 percent of respondents stated that they were in favor of some form of marijuana legalization, including 41 percent who favored legalization even for recreational purposes.
The extent to which CPAC polls reflect general trends within conservatism is debatable. After all, Ron Paul won the conference’s presidential straw poll in 2010 and 2011, but didn’t so much as sniff the 2012 Republican nomination. However, even popular 2012 presidential candidate Rick Perry has recently called for a reassessment of drug policy.
These trends address a significant issue for conservatives, the question of how they can argue for personal freedom and individual responsibility on one hand and the prohibition of certain substances on the other. Is drug prohibition an inherently conservative position? There are compelling reasons to believe it’s not.
Before we explore those reasons, I must first take issue with the terminology. The question of whether or not drugs should be legalized implies that these substances are naturally illegal and that only the benevolent force of law can change their natural state. But we don’t have to believe that this is necessarily true, for it cuts to the fundamental question about the nature of law itself.
Additionally, conservatives, who argue for strict adherence to the Constitution, must acknowledge that the prohibition of drugs is largely unconstitutional in its present form. Without federal intervention, drug laws in the United States would look vastly different than they do today, and yet the federal government has no constitutional authority to regulate drugs or their use.
Beyond these points, the prohibition of drugs poses a significant problem for conservatives who value a consistent philosophy of government. Can someone consistently argue for the prohibition of drugs but against the prohibition of alcohol? Sure, alcohol can be consumed without becoming intoxicated, but does that make it completely different than drugs? We would at least expect consistent prohibitionists to argue in favor of laws that make drunkenness illegal, but this rarely, if ever, happens.
It seems likely that that alcohol and drugs are treated differently simply because alcohol is more socially acceptable (and perhaps because the prohibition of alcohol has already failed miserably). But the inconsistent treatment of drugs and alcohol is inconsequential in the larger picture, because this is just arguing around the edges of the issue.
The real problem with the criminalization of drugs is that is presupposes that government can and should determine what people put in their bodies, a proposition that conservatives already reject. For instance, when the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, advocated for a ban on soft drinks over 16 ounces, conservatives were up in arms. They decried it as an act of government that restricted the free choice of individuals. They labeled Bloomberg a socialist. And they were right.
But they couldn’t – or at least didn’t – draw the correlation between giving government the authority to regulate drugs and government using that authority to prohibit a wide range of other substances. And there lies the real question. How can you argue that government shouldn’t tell you how much soda you can drink but should prevent you from using drugs? The two questions arise fundamentally from the same assumption, that it is government’s job to protect us from ourselves – an idea which conservatives deride as “the nanny state” when applied to other issues.
“But,” some may argue, “prohibiting people from using drugs is a moral issue, prohibiting people from consuming too many hamburgers or sugary drinks is not.” Given what the Bible has to say about gluttony, this point is somewhat debatable. But even if it is true, what are its implications? It is that government should have the authority to determine what is moral and to prescribe penalties for going against its mandates. For those seduced by the possibilities of this idea, I would caution them to consider that once this power is released to government they cannot control how it will be used.
I also remind them that President Obama recently told a group of abortion supporters that they were “doing God’s work.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of government’s ability to determine what is moral.
There are additional reasons that the decriminalization of drugs should be considered, from the ineffectiveness of the drug war to reductions in crime to the increased safety and reduced potency of the substances in question. But the ultimate truth is that drug prohibition attacks freedom and, ultimately, the morality that it supposes to protect. Morality is never less safe than when it is when entrusted in the hands of government.
Key figures in conservatism, including William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams, have understood these points. They all understood that the perceived benefits of using government force to stop people from using drugs had many negative features, both practically and philosophically.
None of this condones the use of drugs. The charge that it does is a red herring that brings to mind Frederic Bastiat’s observation that “every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.” To say that drugs should be legal is not to say that drugs should be used.
It is simply to say that the regulation of certain, even most, activities is rightly the responsibility of other, more important social institutions like church and family. Conservatives need to stop trying to delegate this authority to government and its coercive power.
Government, at its best, is ineffective at performing this kind of social function. At its worst it is downright dangerous. Conservatives know this is true when it comes to charity or health care or retirement planning. Why they forget it when it comes to issues like drugs is an unanswered question.