My problem with the war on drugs
Rolling Stone; New York; Jan 20, 2000; P J O'Rourke; Issue: 832; Start Page: 36-40; ISSN: 0035791X
Abstract: O'Rourke explains why the government's drug policy isn't helping to reduce drug use and
related crimes. He urges everyone who's involved in America's drug-policy debate to take a
Full Text: Copyright Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. Jan 20, 2000
I AM IN FAVOR OF LEGALIZING DRUGS, BECAUSE I AM A STAUNCH Libertarian who
believes that a human being has the right to exercise individual freedoms, including the freedom to snort
mounds of blow, the freedom to get fired, the freedom to be kicked out of his condominium and the
freedom to end up sleeping on my sofa for months, except he doesn't sleep, he sits up all night dribbling
snot and drool on the slipcovers and yammering about the great times we had back when we were both
majoring in street pharmacology at bong state, blah, blah, blah, until I'm ready to shoot him, and - belong
a staunch libertarian and thus an opponent of gun controL - I will.
But don't tell my wife I'm a libertarian. she thinks I'm an old loadie. In her opinion, this-produces less sofa
wear and tear than libertarianism: one husband-size butt print facing the TV vs. an entire old college buddy
with saliva pooLs, coke boogers, bullet damage, bloodstains, etc.
However, calling me an old loadie is unfair. I don't do drugs anymore. They interfere with the Prozac,
lithium, viagra and painkillers. Anyway, if drugs were legal, I wouLdn't abuse them. I would take drugs
with the same discipline and moderation that I exercise in my consumption of alcohol, unless I've had a
hard day, or lunch with a client, or the Washington Redskins have been losing. And I wouldn't even touch
the hard stuff. You have to be nuts to fool with tootski. Nuts or really tired. Because sometimes it's nice to
have a little bump to get you through the evening. It's like coffee. And if you buy your coffee at Starbucks,
cocaine's probably cheaper. It's like coffee that you can't stop drinking even though you're swollen to the
width of a wheelchairaccess toilet stall and you're spurting used java out of every body orifice. Still, you
keep chug-a-lugging, the hotter the better - get up on the counter, wiggle on your back, slide your head
right onto the Mr. Coffee hot plate. Smell those neck hairs burn. Suck that filter paper. Feel your tongue
split and pop like a Ball Park Frank. Who needs tongues? Tongues just get in the way of drinking more
coffee, of getting more awake, more alert, more.... Speaking of alert, have you noticed that Starbucks
aren't built? They just appear. You'll be crossing the.street, there's a dry cleaner over there, you look up
to check the walk light, took back and there's a Starbucks. I'm calling X-Files. Ouch, who boiled my
gums? And why's this toilet stall ankle-deep in latte? I'd better take some heroin to calm down.
As I was saying, I am against legalizing drugs, because I am a stoner dirtbag who believes that a human
being - given half a chance - will get fuck-witted and do stuff that sucks.
MAN, YOU'D THINK ALL THOSE drugs were legal already, I'm so confused about drug legalization.
And I'm not the only one talking through my hat. There's the president of the United States. He says, in his
foreword to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's 1999 report to Congress, "Youth drug use has
leveled off and in many instances is on the decline." While on Page Four of that report we read, "During
the decade of the Nineties, with the exception of the past two years, the rate of substance abuse by
children has risen dramatically."
Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is otherwise
known as the "drug czar," which is easily the coolest government job title ever - sort of like hip, young
Anastasia got Nicholas II and the czarina to ditch Rasputin and go to a Phish concert. It really makes you
think how the Russian Revolution could have been mellower. I mean, it does if you've had a couple of
tokes. But I digress. The drug czar, in his report to Congress, uses arguments against drugs that could be
used against anything. Notice how the following quotes (with slight modifications appearing in brackets)
make an effective plea for banning the penis: "[Penis] abuse impairs rational thinking and the potential for a
full, productive life." "[Penises] drain the physical, intellectual, spiritual and moral strength of America."
"Crime, violence, workplace accidents, family misery, [penis]-exposed children and addiction are only
part of the price imposed on society [by penises]." The worst thing about these arguments is that the drug
czar is right - about drugs and penises.
On the other hand, the drug czar's report also contains some powerful reasoning in favor of drug
legalization, although I don't think it means to, unless Jerry Garcia isn't really dead but has assumed a
disguise and gone undercover as a mole in the ONDCP. Funny how you never see all ten of McCaffrey's
fingers. The federal drugcontrol budget has gone from an average Of $11.25 billion a year during the Bush
administration to $17.9 billion in 1999. But the drug czar's report says that half a million more Americans
used drugs in 1997 than in 1991. In the same period, the number of marijuana smokers increased by
700,000, which is the population of a medium-size city (a city with record pizza, potato-chip and
Mallomar sales). And adolescent dope takers went from 1.4 million to 2.6 million, which explains
Eminem, Tommy Hilfiger clothes and why the kid behind the McDonald's counter gets lost on his way to
the french fries. Meanwhile, between 1991 and 1998, the wholesale price of a gram of cocaine declined
from $68.08 to $44.30, and the price of a gram of heroin fell by $549.28. These are figures obtained by
the Drug Enforcement Administration. God knows how cheap smack is if you don't show your badge
when buying it. Jerry is doing a great job at the ONDCP.
The people fighting drugs may be a fifth column. But the people fighting drug prohibition are working for
the other side, too. There is, for example, the legalizers' argument that banning drugs is ridiculous when it's
the perfectly legal substances, alcohol and tobacco, that cause most of America's health problems. Like,
after we're through with the hooch and the coffin nails, let's go stand out in a thunderstorm with car
antennas in our hands.
Then there's the argument that if drugs were legal, the free market would somehow keep people from
taking them. Steven Duke and Albert Gross, authors of America's Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic
Crusade Against Drugs, claim that the number of drug bums wouldn't increase, because "the use of heroin
and cocaine in a freemarket system would adversely affect the quality of the lives of the users." Am I
missing something about the current non-free-market system? Is there a special Joy- Popper Visa card
that gives me frequent-overdose discounts?
Legalizing drugs will lower their price, the more so if price is measured not only in dollars but also in time
spent with dangerous maniacs in dark parking lots, not to mention time spent in jail. If drugs turn out to be
a case study showing that price has no connection to demand, every economics textbook will have to be
rewritten, This will be an enormous bother - if all the economists are stoned.
Maybe there's some other way to avoid more drug taking. The pro-legalization Netherlands Drug Policy
Foundation has a pamphlet containing the following sentence: "Young people who want to experiment with
drugs will be stimulated to learn to do so in a controlled way." Our boy Hans is doing so well in history
and mathematics, but he's flunking LSD.
A certain weird - not to say high and spacey - optimism can come over people when they discuss opening
the floodgates on the Grand Coulee Dam of drug legislation and letting America's river of junk bunnies,
blow fiends, hop hounds, pipe hogs, mezz rollers, hypo-smackers and yen-shee babies find their own
level. Milton Friedman believes that the crack epidemic was the result of cocaine being against the law. He
says crack "was invented because the high cost of illegal drugs made it profitable to provide a cheaper
version." Milton Friedman is a brilliant man, a courageous defender of liberty. I respect Milton Friedman. I
revere Milton Friedman. But fromi drugs Milton Friedman doesn't know. Crack is less expensive than
powdered cocaine for ten seconds. It was the marketing guys who thought up crack, not the people in
Ethan Nadelman has a Ph.D. from Harvard and an M.A. from the London School of Economics. He's the
director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug-policy research institute funded by one of the richest men in the
world, currency trader George Soros. Nadelman is no vulgar legalizer but a champion of the medically
pragmatic and the politically possible. He is one of the most sophisticated advocates of drug-law reform.
And even he can get fuzzy: "Perhaps the most reassuring reason," Nadelman writes, "for believing that
repeal of the drug-prohibition laws will not lead to tremendous increases in drug-- abuse levels is the fact
that we have learned something from our past experiences with alcohol and tobacco abuse." Ethan, what I
have learned from my past experiences with alcohol and tobacco abuse is that I am a pig dog - a pig dog
with a bad cough and a liver that looks like Chechnya.
The problem with illicit drugs is that nobody knows anything about them (except for those of us who found
out too much, and we have memory problems). There are precedents for this. Tobacco smoking among
educated people began in the sixteenth century, and it took those educated people until 1964 to figure out
that tobacco killed them. Beer has been around since Neolithic times. That's 10,000 years of experience
that wives have had handling husbands who've been ice fishing. And my wife still can't reason with me
when I'm blotto. So how is society supposed to cope with Ecstasy, which dates back only to the first
Reagan administration? We may be talking A.D. 20,000 before anybody knows what to do about a
complete stranger who hugs you on the dance floor and says she's in love with the purple aura that's
shining out your nose.
Drug research doesn't add much to the debate. Eighty-five percent of the world's research on the health
aspects of drug abuse and addiction is funded by the U.S. government's National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Scientists studying drugs are getting their money from the politicians who made drugs illegal. Do you think
the scientists want to get more money? What kind of conclusions do you think the scientists will reach?
Compare and contrast these conclusions with the conclusions reached by scientists funded by the Medellin
Even assuming that the scientists aren't crooked, imagine the problems involved in studying something
that's illegal, secret, shameful, sometimes heavily armed and always stupid. And imagine doing this when
you're pretty stupid yourself, as the Department of Health and Human Services famously is. The HHS
National Household Survey on Drug Abuse is cited all over the place whenever drug policy is discussed.
The household survey is America's main source of information on everything from sniffing paint (14.2
percent of white non-Hispanics ages eighteen to twenty-five have used inhalants) to dipping snuff (0.1
percent of blacks ages twelve to seventeen are current users of smokeless tobacco). And do you know
how the survey takers get the - to use a dated but apposite slang expression - inside dope? They go door
to door and ask people. They really do.
"Hi, I'm from the government. Do you use illegal drugs?"
To which everyone responds, "Yessiree Bob. Come on in - we're just cooking up a batch of meth."
Then the survey takers "adjust for non-response through imputation," which is called, in layman's terms,
making things up.
It's hard to exaggerate official ignorance about drugs. In the wake of Clinton-Lewinsky et al., America's
governing class will confess to most things, but what you can't get a political figure to admit is that he
doesn't know what he's talking about. An admirable exception is William von Raab, who was customs
commissioner under President Reagan. Commissioner von Raab instituted the "zero tolerance" policy that
meant if you sailed into Miami with so much as one soggy roach in the scuppers of your bazillion-dollar
yacht, you lost the whole bikini barge. Drug-law reformers did not like von Raab, but I did. Zero
tolerance gave me hours of pleasure just thinking about planting blunts on the floating gin palaces of
Donald Trump, Ted Turner and their ilk. Anyway, von Raab came up-with zero tolerance because, as he
says, "You can be for legalization or against legalization, and no one knows what you mean." The
commissioner decided to find out what we mean when we say it's illegal to import drugs into the United
States. He found out we didn't mean it. "Zero tolerance," says von Raab with a smile of satisfaction, "was
something of a public-relations disaster."
When von Raab was appointed customs commissioner, the secretary of the treasury, Nicholas Brady,
asked him a straightforward question: "How does the cocaine business work?" The secretary wanted to
know what it cost to grow coca and refine it, who the farmers and middlemen were and what kind of
profits they made, how the distribution network was organized, who provided venture capital - all the
things a good Republican normally wants to find out about a company he plans to squash like a bug.
Commissioner von Raab didn't know. He called a meeting of the various federal law-enforcement
agencies. They didn't know. Upper ranks asked middle ranks. Middle ranks asked lower ranks. "Finally,"
says von Raab, "someone found an article in High Times."
U.S. drug policy was being guided by the incoherent scribblings of some half-- starved freelancer who ...
Wait a minute. I was a half-starved freelancer back then. That article could be by me. I may have been in
control of U.S. drug policy. I wish I'd known. "Cocaine comes from, um, Mars," I would have written,
"and enters the United States only on yachts owned by Donald Trump and Ted Turner."
MAYBE WHEN WE'RE ARGUING about drugs, we should stick to what we do know. And we do
know a few things. Drugs have bad effects. Even chamomile does - to judge by the morons who drink
herb tea. And let's not kid ourselves with the likes of medical-marijuana initiatives. (Good slogan
possibility; Medical marijuana makes me sick!) But the bad effects of drugs themselves (as opposed to the
bad effects of drug laws, drug gangs, drug money or, for that matter, drug legalization) are bad effects
mostly for us drug users. And we're bad already. There are worse things than overdosing that John
Belushi could have done. He could have lived to make infomercials. We don't deserve sympathy. And we
don't deserve help. What we deserve is to have drugs legalized. No, subsidized. No, given to us free until
we're put to bed with a shovel and are out of everybody's way. You may think that Draconian drug laws
are hardhearted, that mandatory minimums are horrible. And, indeed, sending federal agents to troll the
Lilith Fair parking lot so that nineteen-yearolds can spend ten years in the pen for selling grocery-store
'shrooms is not warm and caring. But legalization is cold, too. Smoking crack is a way for people who
couldn't afford college to study the works of Charles Darwin.
Drugs have bad effects; likewise the war against drugs. In the first place, the paradigm stinks. War
excuses everything. You can drop an A-bomb on the Japanese. No sacrifice is too great, no expense is
too high to win a war. This is why politicians love the war thing. War is steroids and free weights for
government. Budgets, bureaucracies and the whole scope of legal and regulatory authority get pumped
and buff. This is why we have the War on Poverty and the War on Cancer. But you don't cure lymphoma
by dropping an A-bomb. Rather the reverse. Who do you draft in a war against drugs? Certainly not
eighteen-year-old boys. They're the enemy. If poverty surrenders, do we put the poor on trial, like the
Nazis at Nuremberg? Some people, including a number of fricasseed residents of Hiroshima, think that
"the War on _____" isn't a good idea, even during a war.
Furthermore, it is very expensive to mistake Robert Downey Jr.'s impulse-- control problems for an
attack on Pearl Harbor. There's the federal government's aforementioned $17.9 billion anti-drug budget,
plus an almost equal amount of state and local spending, plus the more than $8.6 billion that it costs to
keep War on Drugs POWs incarcerated. That's about $44 billion a year to stop the use of narcotics,
mostly wasted, because the drug czar's office itself estimates that Americans are spending $57 billion a
year to keep the use of narcotics going. (And those Americans are presumably wasted, too.)
The drug war has also taken a toll on an institution that's even more noble and venerated than our wallet.
Drug-- control zealotry has led to what constitutional scholar Roger Pilon calls "the drug exception to the
Bill of Rights":
I. Freedom of religion - except for religions involving peyote.
II. Right to keep and bear arms - except when you point one at ninja-- dressed members of a SWAT
team that breaks through the wrong door at 3 A.M.
III. Quartering soldiers in our houses - to be fair, I haven't noticed any soldiers actually in the house, but
some National Guard helicopters have been hovering over my backyard marijuana patch.
IV. No unreasonable searches and seizures - except mandatory random piss tests.
V. No self-incrimination - except that urine in the bottle.
VI. Right to counsel - except if the government suspects your lawyer is being paid with drug money.
VII. Right to trial by jury - except in the case of RICO property forfeitures.
VIII. No cruel or unusual punishments - except to those caught selling 'shroorns at rock concerts.
IX. The enumeration of certain rights shall not be construed to deny others - except when it looks like you
might have drugs in your car.
X. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution are reserved for the DEA.
So let's protest and sing folk songs ("The answer, my friend, is blowin' up your nose") and stuff flowers
into ... mmm. ... the jaws of drug-sniffing dogs at airports. Peace now!
BUT HOW, EXACTLY, SHALL WE make our peace with drugs? All societies regulate the
consumption of intoxicants, either by law or by custom, or by waiting until you pass out and rubbing
Limburger cheese tinder your nose and putting a live frog in your BVDs. The most libertarian of
governments would have some regulations, at least to protect the frog.
One easy and uncontroversial reform would be to get rid of insane penalties. Even the drug czar favors
something called "equitable sentencing policies," which would eliminate one or two federal mandatory
minimums for simple possession. I personally think that people caught with drugs should be made to go
door to door taking the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.
As for legalization, each drug ought to be considered individually and judged on its own merits. (What fun
to be on the jury.) First, take the case of marijuana. Pot has become America's Beer Jr. Weed is not
going away, especially since weed is, in fact, a weed and grows like one. Besides, how much can you
really say against a drug that makes teenage boys drive slow?
Nonetheless, I'm reluctant to see marijuana legalized. No drug will be permitted by law in the United
States without being licensed, regulated, taxed and hemmed in with legalization like alcohol is. No
advocate of legalization is asking for anything else. Ethan Nadelman says marijuana should be
"decriminalized, taxed and regulated." New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson favors moving the drug economy
"from illegal to legal, where it's taxed and regulated." And Milton Friedman bases his arguments for repeat
of drug prohibition on the assumption that drugs would be "handled exactly the same way alcohol is now
So instead of the National Guard hovering over my marijuana patch, I've got the Food and Drug
Administration, the Department of Agriculture, ATF&D (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Doobies), the
Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of going to jail for growing
pot, I'm going to jail for violation of the federal wetlands-protection act. And marijuana has legal standing,
so the next time some fifteen-year-old sucks a goof butt and walks through a glass patio slider, me and
every other old hippie selling nickel bags are defendants in a gigantic class-action lawsuit - same as the gun
and cigarette companies. Since only the richest corporation in the world can stand the expense and bother
of selling marijuana, you'll end up trying to get a virtual high off a digital joint delivered via the Microsoft
All that is nothing compared with the cow-having that would be involved in legalizing anything other than
marijuana. In fact, it probably won't happen. Americans are remarkably puritanical - when they aren't high
as kites. (To understand this aspect of our national character, it helps to have a very bad hangover.) What
probably will happen, rather than legalization, is therapy. America will go from the punishment mode to the
treatment mode with hard-drug users. We do it already when we catch our own kids using hard drugs - if
we have the lawyers, doctors and money. What was a crime will be a disease. Junkies might even get an
Rx for heroin. This, of course, will do nothing to stop murder, theft, corruption or the black market in
drugs. Since when was going to the doctor cheaper than hanging out on the corner? We'll end up building
thousands of "treatment facilities" and sending dopers there instead of prison. The countryside will be
festooned with Betty Ford Centers, except bigger, with barbed wire around them and with no cute actors,
rich kids or politicians' wives inside. At least in prison you get out when your sentence is up. In treatment
you don't get out until you're "cured." Who gets to decide? I hope it's not my wife.
"No legalization without no treatment" is my motto. And maybe no legalization even then. Suppose that we
do manage to obtain an unregulated free market for all drugs. And suppose that this somehow doesn't
cause a horrendous head-on collision between "pursuit of happiness" and "Where's the party?" Suppose
we legalize and it works. It won't work anyway.
Give Americans a legal right and they'll think they've got a federal entitlement. As I said before, we drug
users deserve free drugs. Sounds like a vote getter to me. Pretty soon Democrats in Congress will be
lambasting Republicans for cutting school-lunch morphine portions. And if you think Social Security is
expensive now, wait until Medicare covers granny's freebase.
Nor should we imagine that drug legalization will get us our $44 billion back. Gen. McCaffrey won't get
fired or end up sleeping on my sofa. He'll just shift the focus of his efforts from jailing Woody Harrelson
and annoying the peasants of Peru to educating America's youth: "It may be lawful, but ain't it awful."
Maybe the drug czar will spend the $44 billion on more of those very trippy anti-drug TV ads. Have you
seen the one with the cute chick busting up the kitchen? "This is what your family goes through!" she yells
as she whacks the dinner china with a skillet. Who hasn't wanted to do that to the relatives?
WHAT'S THE SENSIBLE ANSWER to America's drug-policy conundrum? It's the same as the sensible
answer to the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse: Just lie. I don't do drugs anymore. You don't
do drugs anymore. End of discussion. New topic. And everyone who's involved in America's drug-policy
debate take a powder.
Foreign-affairs editor P.J. O'ROURKE wrote "I Hate the Suburbs" in RS 822.