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The War on Drugs Is Lost
From the February 12, 1996, issue of NR

(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This past Sunday, the editorial board of the New York Times endorsed the federal legalization of marijuana. In the February 12, 1996, issue of National Review, this publication’s editors endorsed the same concept in an introduction to a symposium on the question. The editorial and WFB’s contribution to the symposium follow:

National Review has attempted during its tenure as, so to speak, keeper of the conservative tablets to analyze public problems and to recommend intelligent thought. The magazine has acknowledged a variety of positions by right-minded thinkers and analysts who sometimes reach conflicting conclusions about public policy. As recently as on the question of troops to Bosnia, there was dissent within the family from our corporate conclusion that we’d be best off staying home.

For many years we have published analyses of the drug problem. An important and frequently cited essay by Professor Michael Gazzaniga (February 5, 1990) brought a scientist’s discipline into the picture, shedding light on matters vital to an understanding of the drug question. He wrote, for instance, about different rates of addiction, and about ambient pressures that bear on addiction. Elsewhere, Professor James Q. Wilson, now of UCLA, has written eloquently in defense of the drug war. Milton Friedman from the beginning said it would not work, and would do damage.

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We have found Dr. Gazzaniga and others who have written on the subject persuasive in arguing that the weight of the evidence is against the current attempt to prohibit drugs. But National Review has not, until now, opined formally on the subject. We do so at this point. To put off a declarative judgment would be morally and intellectually weak-kneed.

Things being as they are, and people as they are, there is no way to prevent somebody, somewhere, from concluding that “National Review favors drugs.” We don’t; we deplore their use; we urge the stiffest feasible sentences against anyone convicted of selling a drug to a minor. But that said, it is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far.

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William f. buckley jr.

In the summer of 1995 WFB was asked by the New York Bar Association to make a statement to the panel of lawyers considering the drug question. He made the following statement:

We are speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen — yet a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect.

Perhaps you, ladies and gentlemen of the Bar, will understand it if I chronicle my own itinerary on the subject of drugs and public policy. When I ran for mayor of New York, the political race was jocular, but the thought given to municipal problems was entirely serious, and in my paper on drugs and in my post-election book I advocated their continued embargo, but on unusual grounds. I had read — and I think the evidence continues to affirm it — that drug-taking is a gregarious activity. What this means, I said, is that an addict is in pursuit of company and therefore attempts to entice others to share with him his habit. Under the circumstances, I said, it can reasonably be held that drug-taking is a contagious disease and, accordingly, subject to the conventional restrictions employed to shield the innocent from Typhoid Mary. Some sport was made of my position by libertarians, including Professor Milton Friedman, who asked whether the police might legitimately be summoned if it were established that keeping company with me was a contagious activity.

I recall all of this in search of philosophical perspective. Back in 1965 I sought to pay conventional deference to libertarian presumptions against outlawing any activity potentially harmful only to the person who engages in that activity. I cited John Stuart Mill and, while at it, opined that there was no warrant for requiring motorcyclists to wear a helmet. I was seeking, and I thought I had found, a reason to override the presumption against intercession by the state.

About ten years later, I deferred to a different allegiance, this one not the presumptive opposition to state intervention, but a different order of priorities. A conservative should evaluate the practicality of a legal constriction, as for instance in those states whose statute books continue to outlaw sodomy, which interdiction is unenforceable, making the law nothing more than print-on-paper. I came to the conclusion that the so-called war against drugs was not working, that it would not work absent a change in the structure of the civil rights to which we are accustomed and to which we cling as a valuable part of our patrimony. And that therefore if that war against drugs is not working, we should look into what effects the war has, a canvass of the casualties consequent on its failure to work. That consideration encouraged me to weigh utilitarian principles: the Benthamite calculus of pain and pleasure introduced by the illegalization of drugs.

A year or so ago I thought to calculate a ratio, however roughly arrived at, toward the elaboration of which I would need to place a dollar figure on deprivations that do not lend themselves to quantification. Yet the law, lacking any other recourse, every day countenances such quantifications, as when asking a jury to put a dollar figure on the damage done by the loss of a plaintiff’s right arm, amputated by defective machinery at the factory. My enterprise became allegorical in character — I couldn’t do the arithmetic — but the model, I think, proves useful in sharpening perspectives.



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