October 21, 2003
to See the Bright Side
by Alan Bock
news that conservative radio megatalker Rush Limbaugh has announced
that he is addicted to prescription painkillers and is seeking treatment
– apparently not for the first time – could have a significant and
beneficial impact on the worldwide struggle against terror. The
fact that almost all conservative commentators have rushed to express
support for Mr. Limbaugh, to hope that if the addiction can be licked
– most seem pretty sure it can – he can come back stronger than
ever, reinforces this idea, given a couple of assumptions..
know that seems a bit of a stretch, but stick with me.
ADDICTION A CRIME?
it has certainly been possible for those searching the archives
to find quotes from Mr. Limbaugh to the effect that the only thing
wrong with the War on Drugs is that it hasn't been prosecuted vigorously
enough, that not enough people are in jail yet, my own admittedly
incomplete impression is that he hasn't been saying such things
very much in recent years. If my impression is accurate, that may
coincide with his own struggles with addiction, or it could be that
other issues have simply seemed more important to him. Certainly
there have been other issues to talk about.
confess, however, to harboring a fond hope that Rush might have
come to understand that the War on Drugs cannot be won through the
ongoing arrest and incarceration of users, but had been reluctant
to talk about it lest he upset his core listeners. Now he will almost
be obligated to talk about it. One may hope, if logic and personal
experience have any influence on his opinions, that he will have
rather a different take on whether the justice system is the proper
institution to deal with the human propensity to seek to alter one's
consciousness and the fact that certain substances have a propensity
to create addiction (a handy term generally understood but not all
that well defined scientifically if you delve into the literature
fact that he has checked himself into a rehabilitation program (that
might or might not work) rather than a jail, however, suggests that
at some rather deep level he believes that for the individual addict
addiction is better served by medical or quasi-medical intervention
than by the criminal justice system. Once he's through with rehab
(if any addict really is ever finished), he might well be ready
to say in public what so many of us without that kind of platform
have been saying for years – that dealing with drugs and their consequences
for the people who use them unwisely through criminal law is not
only ineffective but counterproductive.
addiction is not a crime but a medical/psychological problem with
moral overtones – and if millions of dittoheads become convinced
of this, and eventually have some influence over the politicians
they support based on other issues, we could see the beginning of
the end of the drug war. That would be a red-letter day for America
and a serious blow to the terrorists (and plenty of other ruthless
thugs) of this world.
a long time criticism of the drug war has been viewed, at least
in conservative political circles, as more of a "third rail" of
American politics than Social Security (which may be losing its
status in this respect). I have talked to any number of Republican
or conservative politicians who are willing to say privately that
they're not sure the war on drugs (or to be a bit more precise,
the war on users of drugs not approved by the government) is a failure
that could and perhaps should be abandoned. But they are generally
convinced that if they say such things in public their political
careers will be ended in short order.
is curious in a way. In doing the research for my book, Waiting
to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana, one of the
more striking things I found was that grassroots support for the
war on drugs was not as strong as one might expect. To be sure,
one of the quickest ways to get into an argument with some conservatives
or moderates is to suggest that it's time to give up the government's
war on drugs, but you don't find as many true believers as used
to be the case, and many of the "citizens" groups in favor of intensifying
the war on drugs turn out to be subsidized (your tax dollars at
work) by the drug warriors rather than genuine stirrings in the
grassy grass roots.
California voters had Proposition 215, which authorizes the medical
use of marijuana under state law for people with a recommendation
from a licensed physician, the proponents were, not surprisingly,
not especially well organized or politically effective until an
influx of money came from billionaire George Soros and others. But
the opponents of the proposition were, if anything, even less well
organized or effective. Virtually the only opposition came from
officialdom – from then-Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates in California
and from then-drug "czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey at the national level.
opponents brought in current and retired elected officials to give
press conferences, which tended to get a day's worth of coverage.
But no groups of parents or other "concerned" citizens arose spontaneously
and in anger to oppose this "stealth legalization" initiative. Officials
tut-tutted and got their day of press coverage – and the people
thought about cancer patients, people in chronic pain and others
and went ahead and approved the initiative. Since then implementation
of the initiative has been spotty at best, often reflecting foot-dragging
from law enforcement and other officials. But no popular opposition
to the idea of medical marijuana has emerged.
in the recent gubernatorial recall election, promising to implement
California's medical marijuana law and do something (usually vague
and non-specific, as is the wont of politicians) to safeguard patients
who find marijuana medically efficacious was the only thing the
candidates prominent enough to get into the televised debates could
agree on. Most national polls show 70-80 percent support for permitting
the medical use of marijuana. In every state where the issue has
been put to a popular vote it has passed. A Nevada initiative last
year to virtually legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana
for any purpose failed, but it got almost 40 percent of the vote.
not necessarily saying that popular support for the war on drugs
is a house of cards waiting to be tipped by the next favorable or
prominent development. But while most politicians still fear to
bring up the issue (even though few who have been punished at the
polls), popular skepticism about the war on drugs is at least on
a Rush Limbaugh taking a stand perfectly consonant with limited-government
Article I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution to see if the "enumerated
powers" include the power for the national government to prohibit
certain substances, and remember that it took a Constitutional amendment
to prohibit beverage alcohol) and based on his personal experience,
much of which he has a gift for communicating, tip the balance?
I don't know, but I can dream.
another argument that friends of liberty would do well to emphasize
if the issue makes its way back into the national conversation,
and here's where what seems like a strictly domestic issue begins
to have implications for foreign affairs and the threats our leaders
perceive as paramount in these times. Ending the war on drugs would
be very helpful in defunding the terrorists of the world.
government has tried to make this connection, but it has done so
in a particularly dishonest way, running commercials charging that
casual users of illicit drugs fund terrorism directly. There's a
bit of truth to the suggestion, of course – although the government
has dropped the campaign and it doesn't seem to have had much of
a persuasive impact. But the truth is that it is the war on drugs
that creates the real nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism.
Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray – who may be running
for Senate in California – notes in his excellent book, Why
Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It and
elsewhere, drug prohibition radically "profitizes the drug trade
and makes enormous sums of money available to those skilled in the
dark arts of intimidation, bribery, inducing corruption and perpetrating
violence. Prohibition creates what is called a "risk premium" that
creates conditions in which drugs like cocaine and heroin sell in
the United States and other developed countries for prices 20 to
40 times what they would without prohibition.
means lots of excess money for criminals – and plenty eager to take
their places if a few are apprehended – and that can be used for
other activities, including violent political activities. Thus drug
traffickers and international terrorists, as well as other perpetrators
of political violence, share an interest in certain things – large
sums of hard-to-trace cash, relatively secure transit routes for
contraband and people, hiding places secure from the authorities,
and large quantities of weapons. It is logical that terrorists and
drug traffickers would hook up, and there's plenty of evidence that
REAL DRUG-TERROR CONNECTION
Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen a couple of years ago did
a series on drug laws and terrorism in which he quoted John
Thompson of the McKenzie Institute, a Canadian think tank, to the
effect that "It used to be that terrorism was funded by nation-states,
particularly the old Soviet Union. But as the Soviet Union weakened
in the 1980s, more and more insurgent groups, terrorists groups,
started to resort to organized criminal activities to pay their
bills." Most of those activities involved drug trafficking.
be sure, there are still some state sponsors of terrorism, notably
North Korea (though it's an economic basket case), perhaps Syria,
and at least indirectly, Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden had an enormous
personal fortune, and one presumes that assuming he is still alive
he still has access to some of that money. But, says John Thompson,
"the big money earner for most of them seems to be narcotics."
are people who understand the real connection well. The Canadian
Foundation for Drug Policy emphasizes it strongly: "Remember,
it is drug prohibition that generates huge profits for these groups.
Without prohibition, drug profits would be a small fraction of what
they are now." Common Sense
for Drug Policy has also set up a website with numerous links
that explain the connections between prohibition and terrorism.
In the early 1990s Interpol was warning that terrorist groups and
other promulgators of political violence were increasingly using
drug trafficking to fund their activities.
Kosovo Liberation Army was largely funded by heroin trafficking
between Istanbul and Europe, and the drug traffickers and insurgents
were often indistinguishable, sharing hiding places, secure routes
and weapons caches. The ongoing civil war in Colombia has been made
much more intense and violent by the drug trafficking that is created
by prohibition. Shucks, before 9/11 the United States helped to
subsidize the Taliban government in Afghanistan because it had promised
to crack down on opium poppy growing (though the amount stored was
plenty to keep the trade going).
the terrorist attacks of September 11 the government made much of
reorganizing priorities to fight or deter terrorism. Ending prohibition
would not only do much to reduce the amount of money available to
terrorists, it would free up thousands of government agents to focus
on threats to national security instead of medical marijuana patients.
As Jacob Sullum, author of another interesting book, Saying
it in Reason magazine of December 2001:
dollar spent intercepting drugs is a dollar that could be spent
intercepting bombs. Every agent infiltrating a drug cartel is an
agent who could be infiltrating a terrorist cell."
eliminating prohibition would not only do a great deal (although
admittedly not everything) to defund terrorists and dealers in political
violence. It would allow more resources to be used to work directly
against terrorism. That would do a great deal to reduce the need
for military action.
Rush Limbaugh making the proper logical connections just might be
the key to turning the tide against prohibition.
making an assumption here, of course. That is that conservatives
(besides Judge Gray and a few others) like Rush Limbaugh and the
many people who admire him are capable of learning from experience,
making some logical connections, and having courage enough to change
their positions in the face of evidence, then publicizing their
changes of heart. I'm not asking for too much – am I?
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