Pubdate: Fri, 01 Oct 2010
Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 2010 Athens Newspapers Inc
Author: Jeffrey A. Miron


For decades, the U.S. debate over drug legalization has pitted
conservatives against libertarians and some liberals. A few
conservatives have publicly opposed the drug war, but most either
endorse it or sidestep the issue.

Yet vigorous opposition to the drug war should be a no-brainer for
conservatives. Legalization would not only promote specific policy
objectives dear to conservative hearts, it is also consistent with
core principles that conservatives endorse in other contexts.

Legalization would be beneficial in key aspects of the war on terror.
Afghanistan is the world leader in opium production, and this trade is
highly lucrative because U.S.-led prohibition drives the market
underground. The Taliban then earns substantial income by protecting
opium farmers and traffickers from law enforcement in exchange for a
share of the profits. U.S. eradication of opium fields also drives the
hearts and minds of Afghan farmers away from the U.S. and toward the

Legalization could also aid the war on terror by freeing immigration
and other border control resources to target terrorists and weapons of
mass destruction rather than the illegal drug trade. Under
prohibition, terrorists piggyback on the smuggling networks
established by drug lords and more easily hide in a sea of
underground, cross-border trafficking.

Legalizing drugs would support conservative opposition to gun control.
High violence rates in the United States, and especially in Mexico,
are due in part to prohibition, which drives markets underground and
leads to violent resolution of disputes. With the reduced violence
that would result from legalization, advocates of gun control would
find it harder to scare the electorate into restrictive gun laws.

Legalization could ease conservative concerns over illegal
immigration. The wage differences between the United States and Latin
America are a major cause of the flow of illegal immigrants to the
United States, but an exacerbating factor is the violence created by
drug prohibition in Mexico and other Latin American countries. With
lower violence rates under legalization, fewer residents of these
countries would seek to immigrate in the first place.

Beyond these specific issues, legalization is consistent with broad
conservative principles.

Prohibition is fiscally irresponsible. Its key goal is reduced drug
use, yet repeated studies find minimal impact on drug use. My
just-released Cato Institute study shows that prohibition entails
government expenditures of more than $41 billion a year. At the same
time, the government misses out on about $47 billion in tax revenues
that could be collected from legalized drugs. The budgetary windfall
from legalization would hardly solve the country's fiscal woes.
Nevertheless, losing $88 billion in a program that fails to attain its
stated goal should be anathema to conservatives.

Drug prohibition is hard to reconcile with constitutionally limited
government. The Constitution gives the federal government a few
expressly enumerated powers, with all others reserved to the states
(or to the people) under the 10th Amendment. None of the enumerated
powers authorizes Congress to outlaw specific products, only to
regulate interstate commerce. Thus, laws regulating interstate trade
in drugs might pass constitutional muster, but outright bans cannot.

Drug prohibition is hopelessly inconsistent with allegiance to free
markets, which should mean that businesses can sell whatever products
they wish, even if the products could be dangerous. Prohibition is
similarly inconsistent with individual responsibility, which holds
that individuals can consume what they want - even if such behavior
seems unwise - so long as these actions do not harm others.

Yes, drugs can harm innocent third parties, but so can - and do -
alcohol, cars and many other legal products. Consistency demands
treating drugs like these other goods, which means keeping them legal
while punishing irresponsible use.

Legalization would take drug control out of government's incompetent
hands and place it with churches, medical professionals, coaches,
friends and families, precisely the private institutions whose virtues
conservatives extol in other areas.

By supporting the legalization of drugs, conservatives might even help
themselves at the ballot box. Many voters find the conservative
combination of policies confusing at best, inconsistent and
hypocritical at worst. Because drug prohibition is utterly out of step
with the rest of the conservative agenda, abandoning it is a natural
way to win the hearts and minds of these voters.

Jeffrey A. Miron is a senior lecturer at Harvard University and a
senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He wrote this for the Los Angeles
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