June 17, 2011

A Student Senate group decided to debate the issue of illegal drugs, and wanted to hear well-reasoned arguments for ending the War on Drugs. Who did they turn to? The Libertarian Party of Minnesota! This spring, two volunteers from the LPMN testified before a group of 30 teens in Roseville, a Twin Cities suburb. Ending the futile and disastrous War on Drugs has long been a plank of the LPMN platform. Our steadfast opposition to Drug Prohibition is based on history, statistics, and the basic principles of liberty. All were discussed before the group. The students were given much to think about!

Historical Arguments:

Outlawing alcohol was widely seen as a just cause in the early 1900s. Numerous groups initially supported it, including women’s groups upset about alcoholic husbands, conservative religious denominations who believed alcohol was sinful, and progressive groups who thought banning alcohol would lead to a better society. Alas, they would soon learn about the “unintended consequences” of government legislation.

When the 18th Amendment was passed in 1920 enacting Alcohol Prohibition, legal breweries, distilleries, and retailers of alcohol were driven out of business. Supply and demand for alcohol went underground, creating a black market that allowed organized crime to move in. Lucrative profits from speakeasies, rum-running, and bootlegging under Prohibition fueled the rise of the Mafia in cities across America. As an example, gangster Al Capone earned $60 million in revenue per year from selling illegal liquor (about $700 million annually in today’s dollars).

Prohibition led to a sharp rise in illness, corruption, crime, and violence. Illness and death sometimes resulted from “bathtub gin” (in the North) and “moonshine” (in the South) that was improperly made by amateur or unscrupulous underground producers, and even from government poisoning. Corruption became rampant as the Mafia paid politicians and police to look the other way, and violence followed as rival gangs battled each other for control of lucrative alcohol-dealing territory in cities. The most infamous incident was Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, when gangsters from Al Capone‘s South Side Italian gang, wielding Thompson submachine guns, attacked rival Bugs Moran‘s North Side Irish gang in a gruesome mass murder.

While some had clung to the belief that Prohibition was working, the St. Valentine’s massacre was a turning point, convincing many in the public that the effects of Alcohol Prohibition were far worse than the effects of alcohol itself. Famous industrialist John Rockefeller admitted, “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”  Finally, people had had enough. Public pressure pushed the government to repeal Alcohol Prohibition in 1933 with the 21st Amendment.

But history repeats. Because politicians never learn.

With their biggest profit-engine gone, the Mafia experienced a steep setback as alcohol was re-legalized. But they soon found a new cash cow: illegal drugs. While narcotic drugs had been first prohibited in 1914, the Mafia took advantage of the increased ease of overseas shipping from tropical regions, the 1960s counter-culture movement, and disenchantment with the Vietnam War, by rapidly expanding their distribution and sale of illegal drugs. The Mafia’s growing drug involvement in the 1960s, violence between rival gangs, and corruption of the police, were portrayed in the excellent movie American Gangster about Harlem heroin baron Frank Lucas.

Incredibly, instead of admitting the folly of Drug Prohibition as they had with Alcohol Prohibition, this time the government redoubled their efforts. In 1971, President Nixon declared a War on Drugs. Taxpayer funds were poured into drug enforcement. The DEA was created, and Mafia figures were arrested and prosecuted. But the black market revenues from illegal drugs were too much for anyone to ignore for long. The void left by the Mafia was quickly filled by the rise of street gangs. Most well-known are the Crips and Bloods, originally from Los Angeles, who battled each other and rival gangs for control of drug-dealing territory in major cities aross America. In poor neighborhoods lacking economic opportunity, youths found street gangs to be a quick path to money and influence, fueled by easy drug profits. The “gangsta” culture arose in the 1980s, popularized by numerous rap and hiphop songs which glorified the gang lifestyle and also expressed rising animosity towards police. As the government ramped up Prohibition enforcement, civil liberties were eroded by legislatures, courts, and police alike, with repeated pedestrian and car searches, no-knock home searches, seizures of property, and arrests of anyone suspected of drug or gang activity. Minorities began to view police not as protectors of peace, but as an enemy targeting black and hispanic neighborhoods for harassment. Contempt and anger toward the police was typified by N.W.A.’s song F*ck the Police (warning: very graphic lyrics). But minorities weren’t the only ones upset by aggressive police tactics in the name of the War on Drugs. White singer Jello Biafra echoed similar sentiments with his song Drug Raid at 4 AM. Were he alive today, John Rockefeller would undoubtedly recognize Prohibition’s corrosive effects across society as history repeating.

Despite rising imprisonments of drug users and gang members, the illegal drug trade remained irresistable, with new recruits replacing those imprisioned. Government could not stop the immensely profitable black market they had created. So the government redoubled their efforts yet again, this time expanding the War on Drugs internationally. In the South American country of Colombia, the Mendellin and Cali Drug Cartels had grown very powerful, with the Cali Cartel alone grossing an estimated $7 billion in revenue per year. During the Reagan and Bush Senior Administrations of the 1980s and 1990s, the CIA and US military were used in anti-drug operations. The CIA pressured the Colombian government to take on the Cartels. In addition to covert CIA aid and outright US military action, the US government engaged in practices such as aerial herbicide spraying, contaminating the countryside with toxic chemicals and ruining farmers of even legitimate crops like maize corn, coffee, and livestock. The Cartels retaliated for the military operations against them by launching a violent campaign aimed at undermining the Colombian government, conducting terrorist attacks against civilians which lasted for years. The US military was deployed in other countries as well, most notably Panama. In 1989, President Bush Senior ordered the invasion of Panama to overthrow General Noriega, whose influence and power had grown from the drug trade. The brief but bloody invasion killed an estimated 3,000 people, and another 20,000 civilians lost their homes and became refugees as a result of the urban warfare.

Alcohol Prohibition THEN:  Chicago, 1929.  The St. Valentine’s Day massacre by Al Capone’s gangsters, in retaliation for rival gangster Bugs Moran’s hijacking of Capone’s illegal whiskey shipments from Detroit. (Source)
Drug Prohibition NOW: Tijuana Mexico, 2008.  The grisly aftermath of violence between the Arellano Felix Cartel and a rival cartel, battling for control of illegal drug transport routes into the United States. (Source)

Even with the eventual dismantlement of the Colombian Cartels and aggressive enforcement in America’s cities, trying to shut down the drug trade has become a whack-a-mole game: as drug organizations are driven out of business, new ones take their place. Today, headlines are dominated by violence at the US-Mexican border, as Mexican Drug Cartels battle each other for dominance with 23,000 killed so far. And in the US, Americans have come to fear violence by police armed with military-style weapons in drug raids.

Despite 40 years of massive efforts, drugs like heroin continue to pour into Minnesota and the US, due to immense profits from their continued illegality. While the War on Drugs has been supported by good people with good intentions, history shows how the road to hell is paved. For those who still support Prohibition, it’s time to ask: When will the body count be high enough?

Statistical Arguments:

Politicians and police have come to embody the definition of insanity: trying the same tactics repeatedly yet hoping for a different result. Knowing no other path, they doggedly insist that the War on Drugs is a just cause and that any relaxation of laws or enforcement will only make the drug problem worse. But results from the few countries which have relaxed their drug laws contradict this notion.

In Europe, Portugal enacted semi-legalization in 2001, decriminalizing all drugs including cocaine and heroin. Although drug distribution remains criminal and drug use is still technically illegal, this policy removed drug cases from the criminal system, refocusing on treatment rather than punitive prosecutions. Police may issue a citation, but are not permitted to make an arrest. Results of even this limited legalization have been startling, with less deaths from drug use. A white paper by Cato Institute documents this drop in drug deaths, from nearly 400 in 1999 before semi-legalization, down to 290 in 2006 [page 17]. Fears of “drug tourism” from neighboring countries proved to be unfounded, with 95% of those using drugs after semi-legalization found to be Portuguese citizens, not foreigners [page 6]. Fear of seeking treatment subsided [page 8], and those addicted became more willing to seek help rather than hiding their habit for fear of criminal prosecution. Perhaps most surprising, overall drug use decreased for all narcotic drugs, including cannabis (marijuana), cocaine, and heroin [pages 12-13], after previously increasing during the 1990s under strict Prohibition [page 14]. Other European countries which have stubbornly maintained Drug Prohibition now have double to triple the drug use rates of Portugal [page 22].

The Netherlands is the most well-known country for less-restrictive drug policies. In 1976, drugs were separated into “soft” and “hard” categories, with soft drugs like marijuana allowed to be sold and used openly in small quantities in coffee shops, while hard drugs remain strictly prohibited. Despite 25 years of marijuana’s open availability in the Netherlands, lifetime use (those who’ve tried it at least once in their lives) is only 17.0% in the Netherlands compared to 36.9% in the US, according to a 2001 study [table 14]. Lifetime use of cocaine is only 3.4% in the Netherlands compared to 14.7% in the US, and lifetime use of heroin is only 0.6% in the Netherlands compared to 1.5% in the US, according to 2005 & 2008 studies [tables 2 & 3]. This debunks the “gateway drug” myth promoted by US government officials, that relaxing restrictions on marijuana could lead to an increase in hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.

US Relative Incarceration Rate
Land Of The Free?  Americans in prison since the War on Drugs began in 1971.  The 0.8% rate of 2008 is equivalent to the entire populations of Alaska, Wyoming, and South Dakota being held captive behind razor wire.  (Source)

In the US, Drug Prohibition has created a vast legacy of broken lives. Today over 2 million people are now held in federal and state prisons, by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 50% imprisioned on non-violent drug charges [table 6]. Drug offenders are often held for many years, obviously destroying their quality of life. In addition, skyrocketing imprisonments have become a drag on the economy, as otherwise productive people are prevented from creating value for themselves and society, while simultaneously burdening the remaining taxpayers who are forced to pay the costs of their prosecution and confinement. A 2002 study cited an imprisonment rate of 701 per 100,000 in the US, compared to only 100 per 100,000 people in the Netherlands [table 14]. By 2008, the US rate had reached 800 per 100,000 (see graphic). Yet the much higher US imprisonment rate has not coincided with decreased drug use, but with the opposite.

Principled Arguments:

The historical and statistical arguments should present convincing cases in themselves. But to Libertarians, these are only ancillary arguments which support our core assertion. The most powerful argument of all cannot be taken from history nor quantified by statistics. And that is to consider the basic principles of liberty.

At the Student Senate speaking event, the LPMN volunteers asked the students a thought-provoking question: Who owns you? Everyone understands that we own the property we’ve worked to acquire, such as our cars, homes, and personal belongings. But who owns YOU?

Do we own ourselves? Or are we the property of those in government? If each individual owns themselves, then we should be free to decide what substances to ingest, regardless of how beneficial or harmful they might be. But if we are the property of government, then they can tell us what we can or cannot consume.

Another question was then posed to the students: What is the system called where some human beings are allowed to own and control other human beings? Without hesitation, they answered “slavery”. If America is truly a free country, free adults must be able make their own choices for their own lives. Legislators in government are just people themselves; they have no legitimate grounds to dictate what is best for other people. Nor do they even know what’s best, as this report should demonstrate.

Libertarians believe that every individual owns themselves. We own our bodies, our minds, and the results of our productive labor. But we also own the consequences of our choices. This is the basic principle of liberty.


Fortunately, global experts are finally publicly admitting what Libertarians have asserted for decades: that the government’s 40-year-long War on Drugs is a costly and devastating failure, and that the effects of Drug Prohibition have been far worse than the effects of drugs themselves. An increasing number of police officers are also catching on, joining Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. And people called to jury duty are beginning to exercise their right of jury nullification, by refusing to convict peaceful people charged with non-violent drug offenses.

Libertarians admit that narcotic drugs can indeed be harmful to those who choose to use them. Supporting re-legalization doesn’t mean endorsing drug use. It means learning the lessons of history, and recognizing that liberty-based solutions work better than authority-based ones. Most importantly, principled Libertarians understand the basic tenet of liberty: that every individual owns themselves and must have the freedom to make their own choices … for better or for worse.

The LPMN calls upon those in government to have to courage to admit that their War on Drugs is a failure. Prohibition hasn’t prevented the problems caused by drugs, it has exacerbated them. Prohibition isn’t saving lives, it’s destroying them by the millions. The LPMN has long advocated ending Drug Prohibition and will continue to do so. Only then will the endless violence, deaths, and imprisonments come to an end. Only then will each individual be able to enjoy a more peaceful society and the freedom of choice that liberty brings.

Concerned about the relentless expansion of government control and the erosion of individual liberty? Consider joining and becoming active in the Libertarian Party of Minnesota. Libertarians stand in support of liberty on all issues, all the time. Libertarianism is a philosophical and political movement promoting individual freedom, voluntary interaction, genuine free markets, and peace.