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End the war on drugs

Connor Roth | Sunday, February 17, 2013

Throughout American history, politicians have always curbed the use of particular substances by the general population – we’ve always had a “War on Drugs,” so to speak. Legislation making it illegal to smoke, ingest or drink certain chemicals has been consistently passed under the idea that it benefits society, but the American people are starting to realize that the War on Drugs is a failure and is inconsistent with the ideology of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. As you have heard before, the Founding Fathers created this country on the principle of classic liberalism – meaning that individual rights reign supreme. Having just escaped and fought off the tyrant King George III, the Fathers knew that emphasizing individual rights would foster a stronger a nation built on liberty. The reasoning that follows explains why we protect and defend the right to private property and freedom of speech: If your neighbor has his property damaged without compensation or is unable to criticize his government, we know the same thing can happen to us  – so through individualism, society actually is made better off and communities are strengthened through these ties.
An issue I have with the American government is that if we are truly the land of the free, why am I not able to completely control what I put in my body? Thomas Jefferson has many memorable quotes, but I believe one in particular applies to the philosophy of self-ownership. He once said, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” While in context Jefferson was discussing religious tolerance, the same philosophy can be applied to the use of marijuana and other drugs – including alcohol. If my neighbors choose to smoke in their basement or at a club in Denver, who am I to tell them how to live their lives? I may or may not agree with that decision, but as a human being each of us is inherently born with the right to ownership of our body; the difference in lawmaking obviously occurs when external events occur outside of the smoking or drinking. If someone gets high and then gets behind the wheel of a car, the situation is obviously completely different, just as it is with alcohol. In the end, I believe everything can boil down to Jefferson’s analysis of private property – so long as other people do not affect you financially or do you bodily harm, they should be free to act on their own will.
The federal government has spent $51 billion fighting the “war” on drugs, all of which instead could have gone to help prevent violent crimes – or even more radically, stay in the hands of the people. According to DrugPolicy.org, in 2009 there were 2,424,279 citizens in federal, state or local prisons. This is equivalent to one out of every 99.1 adults – the highest incarceration rate in the world. Also, 1.53 million people were imprisoned for nonviolent drug charges in 2011 and roughly 650,000 were arrested for simple possession of marijuana. It is well known that African-Americans and Latinos end up suffering the consequences of our current system and are disproportionately represented in prisons too; even rapper Tupac Shakur understood that the War on Drugs is a failure and wrote in one of his songs, “They got a war on drugs just so the police can bother me.” So I’m still wondering how it’s possible that “the land of the free” has the highest percentage of its citizens behind bars – is this not enough information to compel society to rethink some of its policies on drugs?
I would argue that we should legalize marijuana federally and allow states to regulate its use as we do alcohol, but inevitably there will be a significant amount of people who will oppose this legislation. Some irrationally say that “America will become the next red light district” while others just say they don’t think others should be able to do it. Legalization would be a radical change for our nation but we should encourage making people more free on all accounts; we don’t have a First Amendment so we can talk about the weather and we don’t have a right to self ownership without the ability to control our own personal habits. Censoring ideas through book burning has never solved any problems – putting issues out in the open for debate and educating people is how we can change a culture’s perspective. During prohibition, speakeasies became more popular than grocery stores; outlawing particular goods just makes the black market more profitable. Many positive outcomes of legalization exist besides eradicating underground trade – drug cartels would fall apart due to legalization of their product, leading to less violence across the country; there would be more people freed from jails in which they were placed for committing nonviolent crimes; more people would stay in school knowing they would need to rely on education rather than illegal deals to be successful. You think our current president would understand the need to reform this issue considering the results you’ll find after Google searching “Obama smoking blunt,” but maybe his previous statements on the matter were just smoke and mirrors too.
In a GOP presidential nomination debate, former Texas Congressman Ron Paul was (jokingly?) asked if he would support the legalization of heroin, in addition to marijuana. He replied rhetorically, “Yes … if we legalize heroin, how many people here would use heroin tomorrow?” and received a wild round of applause from thousands of South Carolinians. While that is quite a step past marijuana reform, I think what he’s saying is correct. We don’t need a paternal government telling us what we should or shouldn’t do at the threat of a gun to make decisions. If you want to decrease drug use in society, you should be for legalization instead of threatening to use force on other people. It’s time to step back from the mentality that has shaped mankind for centuries; it’s time to stop telling people what to do or how to live their lives. I think if someone wants to have a smoke and they aren’t going to “break my leg or pick my pocket,” we should let them. It’s that simple.

Connor Roth is a sophomore economics major and constitutional studies minor. He can be reached at
[email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.