Politics & Policy

Wasted Resources

John Stossel takes on the drug war.

ABC News correspondent John Stossel once again exposes the cost, folly, and failure of big government. He somehow always manages to do that. This time, his fat and lumbering target is the War on Drugs, a 30-year-old project that can show amazingly little for the billions of taxpayer dollars it has incinerated and the millions of nonviolent offenders it has incarcerated.

Airing tonight at 10:00 P.M. Eastern, 9:00 P.M. Central time, War on Drugs, A War On Ourselves spends an hour asking if government efforts to stamp out drug use are even worse than the drugs themselves. Stossel largely avoids the libertarian argument (which I embrace) that adults should have the cognitive liberty to alter their minds in whatever way they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others or endanger them by, say, driving while stoned.

In fact, Stossel repeatedly says, “There’s no question that drugs hurt people.” He also shows highly unglamorous footage of sketchy-looking addicts injecting heroin between the tattoos on their arms and smoking crack in venues that clearly are not Malibu beach houses.

Still, Stossel’s question remains: “Doesn’t the drug war hurt far more?” Apparently so.

For starters, consider the highly visible hands that police use to fight this war. Stossel presents numerous shots of SWAT teams in Kevlar suits screaming as they batter down front doors in residential drug raids. He shows Detroit police seizing a drug suspect’s house. Before putting it on the market and enjoying the revenues from its sale, cops hurl the home’s TV set into a Dumpster and splinter its furniture with sledgehammers. Treating such private property with respect, apparently, is simply too much trouble.

Stossel shows us 50 Detroit cops who arrest several dozen people in a sting operation. Most of the police’s victims tried to purchase less than $25 worth of pot each.

In 2000, according to the FBI, there were 734,498 marijuana-related arrests, 88 percent of them for mere possession. Stossel reports that drug-related arrests and federal antidrug spending both have increased nearly 50 percent in the last ten years while the number of users has remained the same. “We have flatlined,” admits Drug Enforcement Agency director Asa Hutchinson.

Stossel nicely juxtaposes two pieces of footage. In one, Academy Award-nominated actor, Robert Downey Jr., is sentenced to prison for illegal drug abuse. Meanwhile, Betty Ford goes home after undergoing medical rehabilitation for alcohol abuse. Why no jail time for the former First Lady? Was she any less self-destructive than Downey appeared to be?

Detroit police chief Jerry Oliver bravely goes on camera to explain how all of this handcuffing and imprisonment diverts law-enforcement resources from worthier pursuits. “Up to three quarters of our budget somehow can be traced back to fighting this War on Drugs,” he says.

“If we did not have this drug war going on, we could spend more time going after robbers and rapists and burglars and murderers. That’s what we really should be geared up to do.”

Of course, some cops have cashed in on this war. We see an April 24, 1999 surveillance tape of a crooked San Antonio police officer collecting a $3,000 bribe for delivering what he thought was 20 pounds of cocaine. One dealer says he made $20,000 per week with police assistance. “The cops are just another gang,” he says.

Overseas, the War on Drugs has so elevated profits that new cocaine labs arise more quickly than U.S. and South American forces can destroy them. Coca plantations that have been shuttered in Bolivia simply shift to Colombia. When Colombian police killed cocaine bigwig Pablo Escobar on December 2, 1993, his death was supposed to drain the coke vial once and for all. Then the Cali cartel took over. Yet others stepped forward when their leaders were arrested. The local FARC narco-terrorists, meanwhile, are so fond of kidnapping and homicide that Colombia’s president-elect has chosen to lay low in Europe until his August inauguration.

Searching for a better way, Stossel travels to Europe where governments across the continent are relaxing drug laws. England, Spain, and Switzerland have decreased penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Portugal has decriminalized all drugs.

Holland, most famously, allows so-called “coffee shops” to offer consumers marijuana buds, joints, clumps of hashish, cannabis-laced baked goods and even psychoactive chocolates. These establishments — as I discovered on an early June visit to clean, scenic, and friendly Amsterdam — are not sequestered in nasty parts of town. On the contrary, coffee shops thrive beside elegant restaurants and exclusive boutiques. One coffee shop sits on a fashionable thoroughfare called Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal just two blocks from the Royal Palace and directly across the street from a local police precinct. As its smiling patrons inhale and listen to electronic music, no one outside seems to care, or even notice.

Stossel missed Amsterdam’s new “smart shops” that sell high-energy nutritional supplements, “herbal ecstasy” and crush-proof plastic boxes that contain individual servings of fresh, moist-to-the-touch psilocybin cubensis or “magic mushrooms.” These attractive, brightly-lit establishments also operate legally and in the


By bringing soft drugs, at least, into the sunshine, the Netherlands apparently has made such substances boring to their youth. While 38 percent of American adolescents have tried marijuana, Stossel says, just 20 percent of Dutch teens have done so.

One only can hope that Stossel’s tough journalism finally will knock some sense into federal officials. Since the Constitution does not delegate to Washington the power to control psychoactive substances, the 10th Amendment holds that such powers should be “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Why not let all 50 states experiment with a variety of drug policies, ranging from the status quo in some places to the Dutch decriminalization model in others and even Portuguese-style legalization in yet others?

Even better, why not follow the Ninth Amendment’s instruction that “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people?” Just because the Constitution does not explicitly recognize a right for adults to get baked (just as there is no specific right to eat high-fat potato chips), that alone does not obviate such a freedom. Government should bear the burden of proving that a compelling public purpose trumps the basic human liberty to get inebriated.

John Stossel interviews someone who makes this case in a way that should confound any drug warrior: “There is no risk to the population when a person sits in their living room at the end of a long day’s work and lights up a joint,” says a professional, 30-something woman in a black suit, and pressed, white blouse.

“But it makes you stupid,” Stossel replies. “It makes you lazy.”

“I don’t think I’m stupid, and I don’t think I’m lazy,” she confidently continues. “I’m a responsible adult. I’m an attorney. I pay my taxes. I live a good, clean life. And if I feel like smoking a joint when I feel like it, that’s my business.”

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a contributor to National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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