morality of the drug war

My first interest in engaging the proponents of the drug war was their implicit claim to the moral high ground. I would like to examine in this podcast, who in fact holds the moral high ground. If it is true, as I suppose, that the drug warriors do not, then who if anyone does? Does the citizen have a right, constitutional or otherwise to smoke pot? Does the patient suffering one of the illnesses cheaply and adequately addressed by using marijuana have a right to use that medicine?

Why is asking the morality question useful? First, it is on the basis of moral ideologies in every generation that the sword has been risen in defense of one cause or another. The founders of our country when faced with an intractible British monarchy say in the Declaration of Independence:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

One says, “I have a right to exploit slave labor.” The slave says, “I have a right to freedom.” To understand these claims we need to ask for reasons used by their proponents to justify them. When we hear the reasons, we can more fairly make up our minds who actually has the right. Whoever has the right must, under our constitution, be afforded the liberty to practice it.

This is a philosophical stance, not a practical one. We should be afforded the liberty to practice whatever we have a right to practice under the constitution and bill of rights. However, this ignores the history of practices with respect to the constitution. For the most part the tendency of government has been to collect power to itself and reduce the overall liberty of the people. This is certainly true with respect to the Drug War. But we have to understand that government has, over the decades been faced with problems that were difficult to solve, at least on their account, using the liberty model. Allowing the hidden force of reason in liberty to bring bad behavior under control when the moral temper of the culture was in conflict with that behavior, seemed irrational.

The conflicts faced by legislators in the presence of new and important issues of personal rights and international control of markets forced their hand against the model of liberty assumed by the framers of the constitution and bill of rights. There was literally nothing new under the sun during the eighteenth century. Change was, on modern terms, glacially slow. People had time to deliberate issues in a fairly longwinded fashion without fear that their topic of discussion would be swallowed by unknown forces of culture. This is not so for today.

The philosophical issue aside, how are we to address the increasingly strident tone of the Drug Warriors’ claims to the moral high ground? Certainly in terms of national policy, the moral claims are out of the reach of science and popular consent. The lines are drawn strictly in Washington not in a partisan fashion, by religion or science, but around what can be supported by the myth that force is the only method of controlling people’s behavior.

I certainly don’t believe the federal force to be correct here. But why do they persist supporting views that can’t stand under close scrutiny by any simple science. Why do they persist in regurgitating old arguments whose proponents have been dead for decades.

I want to wash these Drug Warriors from explicit blame here. Their intentions are completely noble. I harbor no ill will toward them except where they insist on deception as a means of convincing people to perpetuate the terrorist rhetoric against the American people. They want to protect the children. They want to reduce harm. They want to reduce damage to the society and risk for our children by controlling drug supply and use.

All these projects are noble and commendable, except, of course, the foolishness of attempting to control drug supply and use. In fact I think there is no essential disagreement between the legalizers and the federal forces on this issue. The differences, of course, is in the methods proposed as a way of doing this. So here we have an agreement of sorts. It is agreement about moral purpose. The disagreement is about strategies for accomplishing these goals. For anyone who bothers to research the issues, they will find a good deal of heavy handed government intervention through legal channels to halt the free flow of drugs. They will find a glaring lack of scientific research supporting the assertions of danger to the society of drugs of many kinds, especially marijuana. One will find consistent denial of evidence that disputes the federal position. The government’s case remains, since the twentieth century, largely ideological. The legallizer’s position remains largely scientific, and socially aware.

The federal goverment in the Harrison Act in 1914, did in fact reduce substantially the street use of heroin. The lies that fomented the necessity for the Act in the first place were astounding. Exaggeration of the “Heroin Menace” played a large part in passing the Act. The act, quizzically, did not forbid prescribing opiates, but placed a tax on them that was intended to slow down traffic and keep an eye on doctors and pharmacies to prevent overprescribing. It was a law whose purpose was to regulate the market, while its intention was to kill the market. It was a strategic and unconstitutional lie.

In a time when the medical community was viewed with suspicion, and any attempt at maintenance of the addict was viewed as wrongheaded, the law through increased scrutiny decreased the availability of heroin to users through legal means. The federal government marked this as a success. However the increase of black market availability belied the supposed reductions brought about by the law.

Underlying this, the use of heroin without respect to law was diminishing at a rapid pace. Since the medical community was no longer prescribing morphine and other opiiates recklessly as it did prior to the first decade of the twentieth century the incidence of addiction caused by doctor’s prescription was diminishing. So the Harrison Act perhaps did no more than drive the already diminishing clientelle for heroin to the black market.

Did the Harrison Act reduce harm? In a way it did. It denied the medical community ability to abuse its powers and so set the stage for a reduction of legitimate use. The downside to this is the federal belief that the ends justify the means. The means were underhanded, duplicitous and perhaps even unconstitutional. However, they remain unchallenged by federal government today even though the Harrison Act has been superseded by other legislation.

The issue at hand, and the reason for this podcast is to find an answer to the question of what we should do now. Seeing the abuse of people in the name of harm reduction the federal government fosters, the prejudicial enforcement of the drug laws, the unconstitutional seizure of property, the violence to reason and science of the modern drug war, what should our response be as citizens?

Though some are pessimistic about any groundswell of change, there is a nagging sense among the citizens that the feds have it wrong. We are searching for new options. Is legalization of marijuana the solution to the problem? It would certainly solve many problems. But would it raise others in its wake?

In an effort to reduce harm, the Netherlands, as I mentioned before, has made a distinction between hard drugs like heroin and cocaine and the softer drugs like marijuana. Marijuana has been decriminalized while heroin and cocaine remain strictly illegal. If as the U.S. says, marijuana is a gateway drug, it is so by its criminal association with the other illegal substances, not because of its chemical properties.

I am hoping that our better senses prevail and that we may be able to find a way to reduce the harm implicit in drug use and in criminalizing 40 to 60 million of America’s people.

Though the Federal Government claims the high moral ground, they fail the test when it comes to treating people justly. They fail their tasks as wielders of the sword and holders of the balance of justice. And though they have managed to delude many citizens into believing that punishment brings peace, they will inevitably fail in their purpose. They claim the high ground, but the means of control they have chosen is decidedly antagonistic to people. Judging from the trends I observe, it will not be long before the tide turns away from this model of government with respect to drug use. It may be five or 50 years, (just a short time in global history) but the drug war will end.

How is this going to happen? A number of things must happen first. The science of marijuana, its effects and dangers must be more than adequately understood. In fact there must be such a preponderance of evidence that no individual in their right mind would choose to dispute it. There is plenty of evidence today in 2006 that marijuana is not only mostly harmless, but is also beneficial in regulating many functions of human health. Of course, all this is denied by the drug warriors. However, as with the downfall of Joe McCarthy in the in the the mid twentieth century, publicity from the grass roots, like this and other podcasts, will slowly show the federal position to be deeply flawed. And though some will persist denying the truth about marijuana, they will fade slowly from the public eye as we adopt a policy more genial to the citizens.

The second reason policy will change is that states, realizing the failure of federal policy will enact legislation designed to allow fair access primarily for medical use. They will decriminalize and eliminate draconian state penalties for possession. Third, some states will successfully legalize marijuana for sale to adults under some regime like alcohol or tobacco.

If you keep an eye on the news coming out of the Drug Policy Alliance or NORML, you will see an increasing number of proposals to enact legislation of these kinds.

Sooner would be better than later, but government moves as slowly as a glacier. There will be challenges by the Supreme Court, and eventually the precedents will be broken and new law established for marijuana. The thing that will win the war against the war on marijuana will be the greed of politicians to collect sin taxes, the relatively benign nature of marijuana, and the hope that regulation will all but kill black market access to marijuana our youth enjoy today.

Here is to hope and optimism. Unfortunately I believe many more citizens will be taken down by these unjust policies before they are overturned.

Thank you for listening to the Marijuana Memo Podcast. To view the transcript of this podcast and other posts relating to the war on marijuana, go to Please leave your comments for me and others to read. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Thanks again.

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A Rational View of a Complex Topic