What is the purpose of government?
That is an important question for us to consider when we consider what our political positions should be. Is the role of government to enforce morality? If so, whose morality? Is the role of government to protect special interests? Is the role of government to carry out the will of the majority? Or is it to protect individual rights?
If we consider the role government takes we see that it generally protects special interests, enforces morality, and often carries out the will of the majority. However, doing these things means they are not protecting individual rights, because doing these other things is contradictory to individual rights. Therefore, instead, the government tramples individual rights.
Criminalization of drugs is a good example. One young Libertarian I know, who after changing his party registration from Republican to Libertarian in 2016, discussed this with his parents, who were registered Republican at the time and worked in law enforcement. When he informed them of his decision to change to Libertarian they asked him if he was using drugs. They knew that the Libertarian Party advocates for the decriminalization of drugs and assumed that someone would only advocate for that position if they were drug users. They didn’t consider the Libertarian argument that we, as individuals, own our bodies and therefore have the right to do with our bodies as we wish.
I can’t imagine most people arguing against the concept of self-ownership. Yet, criminalization of drugs clearly violates the rights associated with self-ownership. What many do not know is that drug criminalization in the United States has largely been tied to racist government policy decisions. And it continues to support the inherent racism in the criminal justice system.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal justice system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations.”
Nearly 80% of individuals incarcerated in federal prison and 60% of individuals incarcerated in state prison are black or Latino. Research has found that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for black people as for white people.
The Drug Policy Alliance further states that “Black people and Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. They are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Experts believe that stigma and racism may play a major role in police-community interactions.”
The knowledge that prohibition only has the effect of leading to increased violent criminal activity and fails to lead to a reduction in substance use can be seen in the prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Putting alcohol on the black market put it largely into the hands of organized crime. Historically, the knowledge that prohibition is poor policy goes as far back as Abraham Lincoln, who made the following statement in a speech before the Illinois House of Representatives on Dec. 18, 1840: “Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”
So why do people continue to advocate for criminalization of drugs today? Most drugs are incredibly dangerous and harmful to the individual and they can lead to violent acts. So it is understandable why people wouldn’t want drugs to be used in our communities. However, alcohol is also incredibly dangerous and harmful to the individual and leads to violent acts. Yet, most understand that prohibition of alcohol was a complete failure and led to a significant rise in violent crime because of its ties with organized crime. How do they not see the same effect from the criminalization of drugs?
Furthermore, criminalization of drugs does nothing to decrease drug use. Actually, when Portugal decriminalized drugs it led to overdose deaths decreasing by 80%, prevalence rate of people who use drugs that account for new HIV/AIDS diagnoses falling from 52% to 6%, and incarceration for drug offenses decreasing by over 40%. Furthermore, Portugal went from having one of the highest rates of drug use in Europe to having a rate of overall drug consumption that is low in comparison with that of other European countries and the number of people entering treatment for substance dependence has increased.
So isn’t it time for the United States to end the failed War on Drugs and to change to a model of government more in line with that described by Frédéric Bastiat in his book, "The Law?" Government should be focused on protecting our rights and not trying to legislate morality or protect special interests.
Dr. Kenneth Brent Olsen is a clinical psychologist practicing in California. He has been active in the Libertarian Party since 1996 when he ran for Salt Lake County Commissioner in Utah. To contact Dr. Olsen, please email him at email@example.com.
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