All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Break This Vile Addiction

The War on Drugs Is Immoral

Janneral Denson, who is black, was seven-months pregnant when she returned to her home in Florida after visiting Jamaica. U.S. Customs agents at the Fort Lauderdale airport greeted her with accusations that she had swallowed packets of drugs to smuggle them into the United States.

Ignoring a physician’s opinion that Ms. Denson’s stomach contained no prohibited substances, Customs Service agents denied her request to call her mother, spirited her away against her will to a Miami hospital, handcuffed her to a bed, and forced her to down laxatives. Careful inspection of the results of their handiwork finally persuaded them that Ms. Denson was, in fact, no drug smuggler. She was released the next day.

Eight days later, following bouts of bleeding and diarrhea, Ms. Denson required an emergency Caesarean section. Her premature son weighed only three pounds, four ounces. It is still unknown whether or not her child’s health will be permanently impaired.

In May, Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly testified before Congress about this and similar episodes. Asked about his agency’s handling of Ms. Denson, Mr. Kelly denied—unbelievably—that the Customs Service uses racial profiling. But he defended the practice of strip-searches as a necessary weapon in the “war on drugs.”

Reflect on this episode—reflect that government officials waylaid an innocent woman, chained her to a bed, and fed her laxatives so that they could inspect the contents of her bowels. Reflect that this woman’s disgraceful experience isn’t unique: innocent people are routinely subjected to such humiliating treatment. Reflect also that a high government official unabashedly tells Congress that such searches are necessary.

Freedom Requires Tolerance of Foolishness

Ms. Denson’s experience shows that the war on drugs is no such thing: it is, like all wars, a war on people. But the people targeted by government drug warriors don’t threaten anyone’s peace and prosperity. These people merely seek to do as they please without interference from the state.

In a free society, even people who recklessly risk self-destruction should be free to do so. (Of course, taxpayers owe such abusers neither aid nor comfort.) Not only is freedom meaningless if the government assumes the paternalistic power to protect us from ourselves, but a wise people will never trust government with that power.

This wisdom motivated Ludwig von Mises to write that “A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.” Without this tolerance for the freedom of others, no one’s freedoms are secure. As the government’s increasingly belligerent “war” against tobacco demonstrates, powers ceded to the state so that it can behave paternalistically on one front will inevitably be abused and extended to other fronts. The reason is that no sound principle is available to constrain these powers. If the state presumes to protect me from destroying my life with heroin or marijuana, why should it refrain from protecting me from tobacco, alcohol, animal fat, or a sedentary lifestyle? Each can ruin lives and upset friends and loved ones.

Innocent People Victimized

It’s important also to be aware of another heavy cost of the “drug war”: government’s weaponry in this war necessarily is fired scattershot. These bullets too often hit people—such as Janneral Denson—who are innocent of any drug offenses. And Customs Commissioner Kelly’s defense of strip-searches is evidence that such scattershooting is inevitable as long as the government wages its “war on drugs.” Here’s why.

Drug traffickers don’t tell government authorities about their illegal activities. And there are no victims to complain. Seldom is there a participant in a drug deal who has an interest in reporting it. This fact distinguishes drug selling (and other victimless “crimes”) from true crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, and robbery.

Because drug dealing involves only willing participants, drug warriors inevitably must guess whether or not an offense is occurring and who is committing it. Such guessing, of course, involves choosing targets according to their racial, sex, and age profiles. This is why Commissioner Kelly’s denial of racial profiling is unbelievable (and why Congress can end it only by ending the “drug war”). No matter how refined the technique for selecting targets, large numbers of innocent people will be detained, strip-searched, and humiliated à la Janneral Denson. After all, if Customs agents could identify drug traffickers without strip-searches, there would be no need for such searches.

Some well-meaning people argue that statistical errors are the price we must pay for law enforcement. But surely the degree to which we should tolerate such errors ought to be determined by the importance of the law-enforcement effort. If the effort itself is highly questionable, then there’s no need to tolerate these errors.

The plain fact is that drug prohibition is highly questionable. At bottom, it is an attempt not to protect each individual’s property and person from the aggression of others, but, rather, an attempt to engineer social behavior. It’s an attempt at the impossible, protecting people from themselves.

“Drug war” proponents often retort that without this social-engineering effort our society would descend into a grim incivility. They insist that with drug legalization our streets would teem with disgusting junkies and our storefronts would crassly advertise the sale of deadly narcotics.

For various reasons, I dispute these predictions. But let me assume here that these are valid. So what? Would a world with more wasted junkies and crass drug merchants be as vile as what we have now? Today, our prisons are chock-full of non-violent offenders. Our inner-city streets are battle zones. Young blacks and Hispanics are suspected criminals simply because they are young blacks and Hispanics. Our courts permit government to seize and keep properties that are merely suspected of having been associated with drug offenses. Many ill citizens cannot get the drugs they need to cure their illnesses or to relieve their suffering. And U.S. Customs agents kidnap innocent young women and men, chain them to beds, pump laxatives down their throats, and inspect the contents of their stomachs.

These and countless other consequences of the “war on drugs” are vastly more uncivil, grim, vile, degrading, unsightly, dangerous, costly, and immoral than even the worst-case scenario of widespread drug abuse.

Let’s break our unholy and repellent addiction to the “war on drugs.”

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.