Com­mon cause

Con­ser­va­tivism and op­po­si­tion to the drug war should go hand in hand.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - Jef­frey A. Miron or decades,

Fthe 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 pol­icy ob­jec­tives that are near and dear to con­ser­va­tive hearts, it is also con­sis­tent with core prin­ci­ples that con­ser­va­tives en­dorse in other con­texts.

Le­gal­iza­tion would be ben­e­fi­cial in key as­pects of the war on ter­ror. Afghanistan is the world leader in opium pro­duc­tion, and this trade is highly lu­cra­tive be­cause U.S.-led pro­hi­bi­tion drives the mar­ket un­der­ground. The Tal­iban then earns sub­stan­tial in­come by pro­tect­ing opium farm­ers and traf­fick­ers from law en­force­ment in ex­change for a share of the prof­its. U.S. erad­i­ca­tion of opium fields also drives the hearts and minds of Afghan farm­ers away from the U.S. and to­ward the Tal­iban.

Le­gal­iza­tion could also aid the war on ter­ror by free­ing im­mi­gra­tion and other border con­trol re­sources to tar­get ter­ror­ists and WMD rather than the il­le­gal drug trade. Un­der pro­hi­bi­tion, more­over, ter­ror­ists pig­gy­back on the smug­gling net­works and more eas­ily hide in a sea of un­der­ground, cross-border traf­fick­ing.

Le­gal­iz­ing drugs would sup­port con­ser­va­tive op­po­si­tion to gun con­trol. High vi­o­lence rates in the U.S., and es­pe­cially in Mex­ico, are due in part to pro­hi­bi­tion, which drives mar­kets un­der­ground and leads to vi­o­lent res­o­lu­tion of dis­putes. With the re­duced vi­o­lence that would re­sult from le­gal­iza­tion, ad­vo­cates of gun con­trol would find it harder to scare the elec­torate into re­stric­tive gun laws.

Le­gal­iza­tion could ease con­ser­va­tive con­cerns over il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. The wage dif­fer­ences be­tween the U.S. and Latin Amer­ica are a ma­jor cause of the flow of il­le­gal im­mi­grants to the U.S., but an ex­ac­er­bat­ing fac­tor is the vi­o­lence cre­ated by drug pro­hi­bi­tion in Mex­ico and other Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries. With lower vi­o­lence rates un­der le­gal­iza­tion, fewer res­i­dents of these coun­tries would seek to im­mi­grate in the first place.

Be­yond these spe­cific is­sues, le­gal­iza­tion is con­sis­tent with broad con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples.

Pro­hi­bi­tion is fis­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble. Its key goal is re­duced drug use, yet re­peated stud­ies find min­i­mal im­pact on drug use. My jus­tre­leased 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. Los­ing $88 bil­lion in a pro­gram that is a fail­ure 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 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.

Jef­frey A. Miron is a se­nior lec­turer and di­rec­tor of un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and a se­nior fel­low at the Cato In­sti­tute. He is the author of “Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, from Ato Z” and blogs at jef­freym­iron.com.

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