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September 29, 2010

"Drugs and conservatives should go together"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary in the Los Angeles Times by Jeffrey Miron, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.  Here are excerpts:

For decades, the U.S. debate over drug legalization has pitted conservatives on one side against libertarians and some liberals on the other.  A few conservatives have publicly opposed the drug war (e.g., National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.), but most conservatives either endorse it or sidestep the issue.

Yet vigorous opposition to the drug war should be a no-brainer for conservatives. Legalization would not only promote specific policy objectives that are near and dear to conservative hearts, it is also consistent with core principles that conservatives endorse in other contexts....

Prohibition is fiscally irresponsible.  Its key goal is reduced drug use, yet repeated studies find minimal impact on drug use.  My just-released Cato Institute study shows that prohibition entails government expenditure of more than $41 billion a year.  At the same time, the government misses out on about $47 billion in tax revenues that could be collected from legalized drugs.  The budgetary windfall from legalization would hardly solve the country's fiscal woes.  Nevertheless, losing $88 billion in a program that fails to attain its stated goal should be anathema to conservatives.

Drug prohibition is hard to reconcile with constitutionally limited government.  The Constitution gives the federal government a few expressly enumerated powers, with all others reserved to the states (or to the people) under the 10th Amendment.  None of the enumerated powers authorizes Congress to outlaw specific products, only to regulate interstate commerce.  Thus, laws regulating interstate trade in drugs might pass constitutional muster, but outright bans cannot.  Indeed, when the United States wanted to outlaw alcohol, it passed the 18th Amendment.  The country has never adopted such constitutional authorization for drug prohibition.

Drug prohibition is hopelessly inconsistent with allegiance to free markets, which should mean that businesses can sell whatever products they wish, even if the products could be dangerous.  Prohibition is similarly inconsistent with individual responsibility, which holds that individuals can consume what they want — even if such behavior seems unwise — so long as these actions do not harm others.

Yes, drugs can harm innocent third parties, but so can — and do — alcohol, cars and many other legal products. Consistency demands treating drugs like these other goods, which means keeping them legal while punishing irresponsible use, such as driving under the influence.

Legalization would take drug control out government's incompetent hands and place it with churches, medical professionals, coaches, friends and families. These are precisely the private institutions whose virtues conservatives extol in other areas.

By supporting the legalization of drugs, conservatives might even help themselves at the ballot box.  Many voters find the conservative combination of policies confusing at best, inconsistent and hypocritical at worst.  Because drug prohibition is utterly out of step with the rest of the conservative agenda, abandoning it is a natural way to win the hearts and minds of these voters.

Some related posts on pot policy and politics:

September 29, 2010 at 10:50 PM | Permalink


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Lawyers and licensing of adult pleasures should go together. Licensing solves the problem of harmful overuse. Reviewed here:


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 30, 2010 5:01:45 AM

Among principled conservatives, if any, this might be true. Yet the bountiful opportunities for demagoguery that drug prohibition provides for law-and-order tub-thumpers makes it a tough (perhaps impossible) give-up.

Posted by: John K | Sep 30, 2010 9:59:40 AM

ROUND the world, the legal status of commodities such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin differs dramatically from that of nearly all other goods. Most commodities are subject to substantial regulation and taxation, but the production, distribution, sale, and possession of illegal drugs are prohibited outright. Violation of these prohibitions is punishable by lengthy jail terms, and many governments devote enormous resources to enforcing these prohibition regimes.

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