It is not the business of government to make men virtuous or religious, or to preserve the fool from the consequences of his own folly. Government should be repressive no further than is necessary to secure liberty by protecting the equal rights of each from aggression on the part of others, and the moment governmental prohibitions extend beyond this line they are in danger of defeating the very ends they are intended to serve.
Prohibition was introduced as a fraud; it has been nursed as a fraud.
It is wrapped in the livery of Heaven, but it comes to serve the devil.
It comes to regulate by law our appetites and our daily lives.
It comes to tear down liberty and build up fanaticism, hypocrisy, and intolerance. It comes to confiscate by legislative decree the property of many of our fellow citizens. It comes to send spies, detectives, and informers into our homes; to have us arrested and carried before courts and condemned to fines and imprisonments. It comes to dissipate the sunlight of happiness, peace, and prosperity in which we are now living and to fill our land with alienations, estrangements, and bitterness.
It comes to bring us evil– only evil– and that continually. Let us rise in our might as one and overwhelm it with such indignation that we shall never hear of it again as long as grass grows and water runs.”
Roger Q. Mills**, 1887
Sorry Roger, sorry Henry. Nobody listened.
This post was inspired by a piece written by Clayton Cramer on his blog a few days ago. I’ve read a lot that Clayton’s written (I highly recommend his book For Defense of Themselves and the State if you’re interested in the judicial history of the right to arms) and I find his work on the right to arms exemplary, but he and I differ on some other topics. In this piece he discussed Rush Limbaugh’s addiction and talks about his support of the criminalization of drugs. The quote that got my attention was this one:
I still don’t think that prohibition of drugs is the most effective way to deal with the problem. It does have one positive effect, however: it encourages parents whose lives are built entirely around intoxication to move to places where those values predominate, like Sonoma County, leaving other parts of America relatively civilized.
That’s not the problem, though, in my opinion. Roger Mills foresaw the real problems, and he was right.
The Harrison Narcotic Act was passed in December of 1914:
To provide for the registration of, with collectors of internal revenue, and to impose a special tax on all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations, and for other purposes.
It was passed in response to an international treaty on the opium trade, and in response to the fact that the United States had just taken possession of the Phillipines where there was an established trade in opiates. On its face, the Act is not a prohibition, but part of the wording having to do with who can legally provide opiates was interpreted to mean that physicians could not legally prescribe drugs to addicts to support their habits. A drug addiction wasn’t a disease, so giving an addict a prescription for his fix was a perversion of a doctor’s practice. Shortly after passage, Roger Mills’s predictions began to become realities. Doctors were arrested and jailed for giving out prescriptions. Addicts, unable to get their drugs through legal channels, found illegal ones. A market to feed their needs (and build a market of new users) was established. The cost of drugs went up – and crime increased to supply money to fill the need. Users were arrested for possession of illegal narcotics. People who, while addicted, were able to provide an income for their families through honest work, instead went to jail and left their families destitute. Addicts relocated to major cities where access to (now illicit) drugs was easier, and crime came with them.
New drugs hit the market, and were in short order added to the Act. Heroin was banned in 1924. Boy, that was effective, wasn’t it? According to this site, in 1926 the Illinois Medical Journal carried an op-ed that said:
The Harrison Narcotic law should never have been placed upon the Statute books of the United States. It is to be granted that the well-meaning blunderers who put it there had in mind only the idea of making it impossible for addicts to secure their supply of “dope” and to prevent unprincipled people from making fortunes, and fattening upon the infirmities of their fellow men.
As is the case with most prohibitive laws, however, this one fell far short of the mark. So far, in fact, that instead of stopping the traffic, those who deal in dope now make double their money from the poor unfortunates upon whom they prey. . . .
The doctor who needs narcotics used in reason to cure and allay human misery finds himself in a pit of trouble. The lawbreaker is in clover. . . . It is costing the United States more to support bootleggers of both narcotics and alcoholics than there is good coming from the farcical laws now on the statute books.
As to the Harrison Narcotic law, it is as with prohibition [of alcohol] legislation. People are beginning to ask, “Who did that, anyway?”
Not enough people, and not the people who had just cracked a Pandora’s box of enormous powers – powers “…to confiscate by legislative decree the property of many of our fellow citizens. …to send spies, detectives, and informers into our homes; to have us arrested and carried before courts and condemned to fines and imprisonments.” Not those people.
In between passage of the Narcotic Act and subsequent “tightening of the loopholes,” America in another fit of Puritanism ratified the Eighteenth Amendment – Prohibition – and then went home and had a stiff martini in celebration. What followed paralleled the results of the other attempt “to regulate by law our appetites and our daily lives,” – abject failure. Increased crime. Increased misery. Increased prison populations. Increased poverty. Death. Mayhem.
And ever-increasing, ever more intrusive government power at the expense of the rights of the individual.
I am not an advocate of “If it feels good, do it.” I’ll tell you right up front that I have never been intoxicated in my life. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, the only drugs I take are over-the-counter medications when I’m ill, or prescriptions as prescribed. I’ve never wanted to take a mind-altering substance. But I know a lot of people who have and some who still do. I understand that, for some people, drugs lead to addiction and death. They fuck up families. They destroy lives. They’re best left alone, in my opinion.
But it shouldn’t be the job of government to protect us from ourselves.
Because it can’t. All it can do is oppress us. And in its effort to protect us, it doesn’t just oppress the people who abuse drugs, it oppresses us all. The “cure” is worse than the disease – except there is no cure – just a new (and in many ways worse) problem on top of the one it’s supposed to cure.
The Illinois Medical Journal saw it in 1926. The American public saw it well enough to repeal Prohibition in 1933. But drug users (other than of alcohol
and nicotine) represent an unpopular and unsympathetic minority in this country, and our elected officials were unable or unwilling to tell the electorate “We don’t have that power.” The Founders understood the dangers of creeping expansion of government power and tried their best to ensure that our system inhibited that expansion, but in this they failed. Regardless of the best idiot-proof designs, human nature constantly provides unprotectable idiots. In volume. Congress didn’t have that power. Aside from the fact that protecting us from ouselves is impossible, Congress wasn’t given the power to try. But they went ahead and tried anyway.
Here are some of the results of the War on (some) Drugs© as we know them:
So what does that tell us? For one thing, all the drug laws on the books haven’t affected availability. For another, it’s possible to be a drug user and still hold down a job, be a productive citizen, and pay taxes. For a third, all that money we’re shelling out to interdict drugs is wasted. Fourth, we’re incarcerating only a tiny fraction of drug users. The laws aren’t preventing drug use.
Here’s some more:
Fundamental rights of individuals that were supposed to be protected against infringement by the Bill of Rights have been chipped at under the guise of “Drug Control.” A little bit here, a little bit there. Just in this special circumstance. Until they decide they need to widen that window. Just a bit, you understand. To make us all safer.
Alcohol prohibition created many problems not foreseen: Organized crime, gang wars, bathtub gin, just to name a few. But when Prohibition ended, beer truck drivers no longer shot at each other for infringing on their territories. The incidents of people being blinded by drinking poisonous homebrew dropped dramatically. And tax revenues went up. Yes, alcohol remains one of the most devastating drugs out there – responsible for violence, broken homes, ruined lives, and horrendous numbers of dead on the nations highways – but it was better than the alternative – which was all those things and government in everybody’s lives.
Legalizing drugs wouldn’t be a panacea. It wouldn’t make everything peachy-keen. Much damage is already done that cannot be undone, but you cannot honestly argue that it will make drugs easier to get. It might reduce the number of overdoses and unintentional poisonings due to inconsistent quality and cutting with who knows what. It would put a major dent in the illicit trade, and hopefully the violence associated with it. It should reduce the crime associated with supporting addiction. It might make drug abusers more employable – though that should remain a choice that businesses make for themselves. But it would end an ever-increasing intrusion on our lives and our rights by government. And hey! It might be a new source of revenue, so long as they don’t try to regulate useage (as they are now with tobacco) via onerous “sin taxes” that just lead back to a black market.
And it should save a considerable amount of tax dollars. But of course it wouldn’t. After just a few years of Prohibition the Federal agents tasked with that job weren’t let go when it was repealed, they were just given a different job – enforcing the new Federal firearms law. You can bet all those DEA agents would be put on something.
How about anti-terrorism?
*Henry George was, for want of a better term, a “social philosopher,” and a contemporary of Mark Twain and Thomas Edison. He wrote Progress and Poverty in his spare time and self-published it in 1879. It was picked up by a publishing house in 1880 and became an international best seller. It’s a book on economics. I’ve not read the book, and I have no other knowledge of the author, but the quotation that begins this piece is as concise an expression of the purpose of government as any I’ve ever seen.
**Roger Mills was a Democrat and (after fighting on the side of the South during the Civil War) served as a representative for Texas in the House from 1873 to 1892, and the Senate from 1892 to 1899. He died in 1911, so he never saw the 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act pass, and he missed the passage of Prohibition, but his warning was prescient, and I’ve often wondered why more people do not understand what he put so eloquently 116 years ago.
Update, 10/27: In a related issue, Ravenwood reports that we obviously haven’t learned anything yet.
UPDATE: As of August 6, 2013, due to the herculean efforts of reader John Hardin, the original JS-Kit/Echo comment thread for this post (read-only) is available here.