An op-ed in the LA Times posed this question today. The author, Jeffrey A. Miron, is certainly no bleeding liberal. He is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, and a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies at Harvard.
The article appears on both the LA Times and the Cato Institute web sites where it is titled â€œDrugs and Conservatives Should Go Together.â€ Miron doesnâ€™t mince words. He says that opposition to the drug war should be a no-brainer for conservatives, but with few exceptions (the late William Buckley being one prominent dissenter), they have been staunch supporters.
Legalization of drugs, the writer asserts, would promote longstanding policy objectives that are â€œnear and dearâ€ to conservativesâ€™ hearts, and he discusses them in great detail. Briefly, he says it would help in the Afghan war, illegal immigration, the war on terror, and on gun control. But beyond this, he says that legalization is consistent with â€œbroad conservative principles.â€
Drug prohibition is a fiscal black hole that we are pouring money into, with little if any to show for it. Drugs are readily available on the street in most cities, and repeated studies have shown no decrease in drug use. Plus, we could tax drugs if they were legalized, just as we tax tobacco and alcohol. Itâ€™s a double whammy that costs us nearly 100 billion dollars a year.
Conservatives say they want government strictly limited to the specific powers detailed in the Constitution. But nowhere in that document will you find any mention of powers to outlaw specific products. As he points out, it was necessary to pass the 18th Amendment to implement Prohibition, but no such amendment has ever been suggested to outlaw drugs, a glaring inconsistency.
Of course, an even more glaring inconsistency is the legal status of tobacco and alcohol. Here, Miron strays a little into his libertarian philosophy, saying that drug prohibition is â€œhopelessly inconsistent with allegiance to free markets,â€ which he interprets to mean that businesses should be able to â€œsell whatever products they wish, even if the products could be dangerous.â€
I guess it depends on the degree of danger. Children shouldnâ€™t be allowed to buy sticks of dynamite over-the-counter, one would presume. But he is certainly right that the risks of drug abuseâ€¦especially marijuanaâ€¦are no greater and probably less than either tobacco or alcohol. Consistency demands, he says, treating drugs just like those other products.
This is a very broad-brush summary of a generally well-written piece, but in his final point I think he really gets it wrong. He says that conservatives could help themselves politically by supporting legalization. Many voters, he says, are confused by conservatives support for government intervention in what should be a private matter. It is inconsistent with underlying conservative principles.
I think he is overlooking the fact that many people who consider themselves conservatives are from the Religious Right, and their widely held view is that drug use is associated with immorality, including prostitution, promiscuity, homosexuality and all those other ways of wickedness condemned in the Bible.
Any move to support legalization would split the conservative vote right down the middle. A more perfect wedge issue I cannot imagine.
So, despite the logic of Mr. Miron, donâ€™t look for a conservative turnaround on this issue any time soon.