Why John Walters Is Wrong About Drugs

John P. Walters, director of drug control policy under President George W. Bush, wrote on what he views as an inconsistency between libertarian philosophy and support for ending the war on drugs. He claims libertarians get it wrong on drugs.

Mr. Walters gets it wrong on drugs, as well as on libertarians.

The broad libertarian philosophy does argue, as Walters points out, that free and rational actors should be able to make decisions based on what is best in their view rather than allowing a centralized, disconnected "nanny state" to do so. He says that, therefore, libertarians believe drugs should not be outlawed, "and over time this self-destructive behavior will limit itself."

The jump from legalized drugs to curtailed drug use ignores the steps taken to get there, and suggests that Walters does not understand the libertarian position at large. Libertarians do believe that nonviolent drug offenders are punished too harshly. However, in both libertarianism and the field of economics, the argument against prohibition does not stem from the naïve belief in a utopian, drug-free world that will result directly from the lifting of all laws against drug use.

Rather, it stems from the destructive, tragically violent, racist, and wildly expensive war on drugs that -- on top of everything -- is ineffective.

The libertarian argument does not rest on some notion that drugs are completely harmless, as Walters seems to suggest. The "social and economic failure" associated with drug use that, in his eyes justify prohibition, are all happening under an already extremely prohibitive, $51 billion a year federal campaign against drug use.

If the concern is with economic failure, the war on drugs is perhaps the number one offender. If the concern lies with social failure, then we can't forget that a batch of pot brownies could land a 19-year-old in jail for life. To suggest prohibition is the best we can do to address drug use is to ignore the reality that drug supply has actually increased under our current system.

Another concern Walters raises is the vast unknown of consequences that would accompany legalizing drug production and distribution. He paints the picture of legalized manufacturing being like an "Afghan warlord with a lobbying arm and a marketing department." However, if history is doomed to repeat itself, then perhaps it's best to look at a past prohibition movement: alcohol. Alcohol abuse today is its own issue, but we are no longer thrown in jail for attending happy hour, and this is an extremely good thing. Alcohol prohibition starting in the 1920s resulted in organized crime, shoddy supply of unsanitary "bathtub gin", and a mechanically raised rate of crime.

Even John D. Rockefeller, a well-known teetotaler at the time, pleaded for the repeal of the 18th Amendment due to the "evils that have developed and flourished since its adoption." To talk about what could go wrong with legalized drug manufacturing does not take into account what currently goes wrong with black market manufacturing. The one-sided argument of Walters does not address the historic reality of prohibition.

Walters' presupposition that drug users are incapable of making rational choices allows him to claim inconsistency within libertarianism. However, the hysteria over narcotics' ability to wipe out human rationality is ultimately misguided and yet nothing new. A Miami man found eating a homeless man's face while on bath salts became a relatively new poster child for the horrors of drug use, even though the toxicology report later found no actual bath salts in the man's system.

And this is not an isolated example of the exaggerated effects of drugs. Recent data-driven evidence seriously challenges the idea that drug users are irrational. Carl Hart, an author and neuroscientist at Columbia University, found that the relatively small percentage of crack-cocaine users who become addicted made rational choices between cash vouchers and various amounts of crack, depending on the perceived benefits from the amount offered.

The science on drug use and addiction is changing. And, libertarians at least, hope policy will soon follow. America is seen as an international leader in many things, but the highest incarceration rate of any country should not be one of them.

Walters is right that libertarians believe in allowing people to choose freely. He is also correct that the majority of libertarians support ending the drug war. Libertarians do not dismiss the idea that drugs can be dangerous to users and those around them. But the idea that we should maintain the status quo of a miserably failed campaign against drug use is ignorant of the externalities of such a war, as well as potential reform that could actually alleviate drug addiction.

Libertarians are generally against war, but the war on drugs is one that we'll continue to fight against on the front line.