Is the Drug War Toast?

Public opinion now decisively favors legalizing marijuana. Fifty-eight percent of Americans want the war on pot to stop.

Once marijuana is legal, the drug war as we know it will need a new life breathed into it to survive. Pot accounts for the vast majority of arrests and illicit drug users. It is much easier for the federal drug warriors to whip up hysteria over “tens of millions” of Americans using illegal substances than it would be to point to a couple million and say it justifies an exorbitant national crusade. Of course, full legalization would mean far less crime, particularly in Mexico, and a much healthier atmosphere for civil liberties.

The trajectory in public opinion warrants some attention. Younger Americans tend toward liberalizing the drug laws. Sixty-seven percent between ages 18 and 29 and 62% between those ages 30 and 49 want marijuana legal. Only those above 65 oppose legalization as a group, but 45% support it even in this demographic.

Only a little over a decade ago—when I was peripherally involved in drug reform activism in college—marijuana prohibition was supported two to one. Back in 1968, only 12% favored legalization.

Back then, libertarians and few others were vocal in prioritizing legalization, and they were attacked as fringe agitators with their heads in the clouds. Indeed, for decades, drug reform was among the most controversial programs in the libertarian agenda. Today, it’s one of the most mainstream.

This speaks to the importance of standing by principle, especially when something as gruesomely destructive of human rights as the drug war is involved. Few government programs inflict so much damage at home. Now, those who have stood strong, against conventional opinion, demanding that people stop being caged for the act of growing and smoking plants, appear prophetic in retrospect. In a decade or two, few people will admit to having supported the insane policy of prohibition.

Of course, there is a far distance to go before marijuana is nationally legalized, and even further before we see meaningful reform concerning the other controlled substances, which are understandably not as universally regarded as benign, but which have also been the subject of decades of governmental propaganda, and for the ingestion of which, at any event, it is a moral atrocity to jail people.

Yet it seems like it’s only a matter of time at this point. No one thinks the drug war works. Everyone knows it’s a failure. We’ve had three presidents in a row who used illicit substances and who nevertheless threw thousands behind bars for doing the same. This war to make the world safe for hypocrisy will have to end eventually.

We owe our praise to the politics of disobedience. States have legalized medical and recreational marijuana in direct conflict with federal law, even after the Supreme Court upheld national policy as overriding state prerogative. That didn’t stop people on the state level from going ahead and opening up thousands of dispensaries and farms, and trading and using as though their natural rights were not Washington’s to void. Good for them. For decades, people have daringly broken federal law, gradually winning public opinion over to their side. Just as during alcohol prohibition and slavery, broaching bad law has in the long term served the cause of liberty more than working within the system from the top down. As Augustine said, an unjust law is no law at all. And those who have lived accordingly are seeing the populace come around to finally defend their rights that the government has so arrogantly violated for the last century.

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