Politics & Policy

The War on Drugs Is Lost

(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
From the February 12, 1996, issue of NR

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.

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.


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.

#page#Professor Steven Duke of Yale Law School, in his valuable book, America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade against Drugs, and scholarly essay, “Drug Prohibition: An Unnatural Disaster,” reminds us that it isn’t the use of illegal drugs that we have any business complaining about, it is the abuse of such drugs. It is acknowledged that tens of millions of Americans (I have seen the figure 85 million) have at one time or another consumed, or exposed themselves to, an illegal drug. But the estimate authorized by the federal agency charged with such explorations is that there are not more than 1 million regular cocaine users, defined as those who have used the drug at least once in the preceding week. There are (again, an informed estimate) 5 million Americans who regularly use marijuana; and again, an estimated 70 million who once upon a time, or even twice upon a time, inhaled marijuana. From the above we reasonably deduce that Americans who abuse a drug, here defined as Americans who become addicted to it or even habituated to it, are a very small percentage of those who have experimented with a drug, or who continue to use a drug without any observable distraction in their lives or careers. About such users one might say that they are the equivalent of those Americans who drink liquor but do not become alcoholics, or those Americans who smoke cigarettes but do not suffer a shortened lifespan as a result.

Curiosity naturally flows to ask, next, How many users of illegal drugs in fact die from the use of them? The answer is complicated in part because marijuana finds itself lumped together with cocaine and heroin, and nobody has ever been found dead from marijuana. The question of deaths from cocaine is complicated by the factor of impurity. It would not be useful to draw any conclusions about alcohol consumption, for instance, by observing that, in 1931, one thousand Americans died from alcohol consumption if it happened that half of those deaths, or more than half, were the result of drinking alcohol with toxic ingredients extrinsic to the drug as conventionally used. When alcohol was illegal, the consumer could never know whether he had been given relatively harmless alcohol to drink — such alcoholic beverages as we find today in the liquor store — or whether the bootlegger had come up with paralyzing rotgut. By the same token, purchasers of illegal cocaine and heroin cannot know whether they are consuming a drug that would qualify for regulated consumption after clinical analysis.

But we do know this, and I approach the nexus of my inquiry, which is that more people die every year as a result of the war against drugs than die from what we call, generically, overdosing. These fatalities include, perhaps most prominently, drug merchants who compete for commercial territory, but include also people who are robbed and killed by those desperate for money to buy the drug to which they have become addicted.

This is perhaps the moment to note that the pharmaceutical cost of cocaine and heroin is approximately 2 per cent of the street price of those drugs. Since a cocaine addict can spend as much as $1,000 per week to sustain his habit, he would need to come up with that $1,000. The approximate fencing cost of stolen goods is 80 per cent, so that to come up with $1,000 can require stealing $5,000 worth of jewels, cars, whatever. We can see that at free-market rates, $20 per week would provide the addict with the cocaine which, in this wartime drug situation, requires of him $1,000.

My mind turned, then, to auxiliary expenses — auxiliary pains, if you wish. The crime rate, whatever one made of its modest curtsy last year toward diminution, continues its secular rise. Serious crime is 480 per cent higher than in 1965. The correlation is not absolute, but it is suggestive: Crime is reduced by the number of available enforcers of law and order, namely policemen. The heralded new crime legislation, passed last year and acclaimed by President Clinton, provides for 100,000 extra policemen, even if only for a limited amount of time. But 400,000 policemen would be freed to pursue criminals engaged in activity other than the sale and distribution of drugs if such sale and distribution, at a price at which there was no profit, were to be done by, say, a federal drugstore.

So then we attempt to put a value on the goods stolen by addicts. The figure arrived at by Professor Duke is $10 billion. But we need to add to this pain of stolen property, surely, the extra-material pain suffered by victims of robbers. If someone breaks into your house at night, perhaps holding you at gunpoint while taking your money and your jewelry and whatever, it is reasonable to assign a higher “cost” to the episode than the commercial value of the stolen money and jewelry. If we were modest, we might reasonably, however arbitrarily, put at $1,000 the “value” of the victim’s pain. But then the hurt, the psychological trauma, might be evaluated by a jury at ten times, or one hundred times, that sum.

But we must consider other factors, not readily quantifiable, but no less tangible. Fifty years ago, to walk at night across Central Park was no more adventurous than to walk down Fifth Avenue. But walking across the park is no longer done, save by the kind of people who climb the Matterhorn. Is it fair to put a value on a lost amenity? If the Metropolitan Museum were to close, mightn’t we, without fear of distortion, judge that we had been deprived of something valuable? What value might we assign to confidence that, at night, one can sleep without fear of intrusion by criminals seeking money or goods exchangeable for drugs?

Pursuing utilitarian analysis, we ask: What are the relative costs, on the one hand, of medical and psychological treatment for addicts and, on the other, of incarceration for drug offenses? It transpires that treatment is seven times more cost-effective. By this is meant that one dollar spent on the treatment of an addict reduces the probability of continued addiction seven times more than one dollar spent on incarceration. Looked at another way: Treatment is not now available for almost half of those who would benefit from it. Yet we are willing to build more and more jails in which to isolate drug users even though at one-seventh the cost of building and maintaining jail space and pursuing, detaining, and prosecuting the drug user, we could subsidize commensurately effective medical care and psychological treatment.

I have spared you, even as I spared myself, an arithmetical consummation of my inquiry, but the data here cited instruct us that the cost of the drug war is many times more painful, in all its manifestations, than would be the licensing of drugs combined with intensive education of non-users and intensive education designed to warn those who experiment with drugs. We have seen a substantial reduction in the use of tobacco over the last 30 years, and this is not because tobacco became illegal but because a sentient community began, in substantial numbers, to apprehend the high cost of tobacco to human health, even as, we can assume, a growing number of Americans desist from practicing unsafe sex and using polluted needles in this age of AIDS. If 80 million Americans can experiment with drugs and resist addiction using information publicly available, we can reasonably hope that approximately the same number would resist the temptation to purchase such drugs even if they were available at a federal drugstore at the mere cost of production.

And added to the above is the point of civil justice. Those who suffer from the abuse of drugs have themselves to blame for it. This does not mean that society is absolved from active concern for their plight. It does mean that their plight is subordinate to the plight of those citizens who do not experiment with drugs but whose life, liberty, and property are substantially affected by the illegalization of the drugs sought after by the minority.I have not spoken of the cost to our society of the astonishing legal weapons available now to policemen and prosecutors; of the penalty of forfeiture of one’s home and property for violation of laws which, though designed to advance the war against drugs, could legally be used — I am told by learned counsel — as penalties for the neglect of one’s pets. I leave it at this, that it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana. I would hope that the good offices of your vital profession would mobilize at least to protest such excesses of wartime zeal, the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre. And perhaps proceed to recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors.

— William F. Buckley Jr. was the founder and editor-in-chief of National Review. This is adapted from an article that ran in the February 12, 1996, issue of National Review.

NRO Staff — Members of the National Review Online editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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