End The Wrong-Headed War On Drugs

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The great debate on the effectiveness of the War on Drugs has emerged and caused tremendous angst to big government social conservatives.

We are told by authorities that violent crime, rape, and murder will become the norm if marijuana is legalized. While libertarians question the effectiveness of spending $45,000 a year to put a non-violent drug offender behind bars for 5-20 years. That’s right. The War on Drugs requires us to pay salaries, benefits and pensions to law enforcement, the prison system, the judiciary, and myriad other personnel. It’s cheaper to send these drug offenders to Harvard.

Yet libertarians are misguided if we think society will tolerate irresponsible behavior. There are two sides to freedom. One is our right to privacy, the other is personal responsibility.

It is interesting to note that many conservative icons associated with morality and civic virtue have called for the decriminalization or the complete legality of smoking marijuana. They include Sarah Palin, who says, “What people do in the privacy of their own living room is not the concern of the police. They have better things to do”.

Other moral conservatives who have long recommended decriminalization include the Rev Pat Robertson; publisher and founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley; and Southern Baptist former President Jimmy Carter.

Former California Governor Ronald Reagan once said in his radio commentary, “Marijuana is probably not good for you, but it should be decriminalized.”

Yet, when I worked as a National Field Director for President Reagan’s group, Citizens For America, I was on board with his and Nancy’s, “Just Say No” campaign. The Reagans even invited Michael Jackson to the White House to support what would be called the War on Drugs.

Sadly, we learned once again that prohibition does not work. But what to do?

Here’s a thought for both libertarians and conservatives who believe in limited government, but not social libertinism.

Legalize all drugs and get the government out of the costly, wasteful, fraudulent lost war. Simultaneously, allow all employers to choose to test for high levels of THC that may impede concentration or safety at the work place. Society and science would have to determine when a certain level of THC in one’s blood system is contributing to poor health and other behavioral problems that are costly to society. Some employers will choose to keep an employee who tests positive because the worker or colleague is highly productive and indispensable, others will not.

If an employee loses their job, income and benefits, that could mean total disaster. Who would like to come home to their spouse and say, “Honey, I lost my job and the kids have no health insurance because I smoke too much pot”? That would be inviting a divorce and perhaps bankruptcy. Such a possible outcome should likely make all tokers think long and hard about how much they want to lose in life just to have a buzz all the time.

And why can’t health and automobile insurance companies be allowed to test for excessive amounts of THC in an applicant? After all, pot smoking does contribute to high rates of cancers that drive up the costs of Medicare and Medicaid, diminish concentration, and for some, trigger thoughtless behavior behind a steering wheel. Why shouldn’t these companies require higher deductibles, co-pays, premiums, etc. for high risk applicants?

When some libertarians say, “It’s my body, I can do whatever I want with it”, they are flirting with an outcome that can make them a public liability when their body requires excessive government expenditures to pay for their self-cultivated cancers or poverty. Suddenly, the swaggering libertarian becomes government dependent, no longer independent.

The US military tests for drugs and requires physical fitness. We can not have professional soldiers managing our nuclear arsenal and combat operations stoned. Nor can society afford a self-impaired work force.

There is a way to allow freedom, eliminate the ineffective and high cost of the failed War on Drugs, while also inducing high standards of self-government.

That’s why I support legalization of marijuana for the majority of thoughtful Americans who do use it responsibly in private. Let’s down size the federal War on Drugs and focus on serious threats, not non-violent Americans.

Let the private sector determine how much they will tolerate and what penalties should be imposed to prevent users from being so irresponsible they are hurting other people’s lives.

If private insurance companies and employers draw the line on excessive THC levels, there will be a legitimate price to pay. That will be more efficient than the government approach. And we do not have to pay salaries, pensions and benefits to the public sector employee unions — for a War on Drugs that is a failure just like the hapless War on Poverty.

Matthew Tsien is the former Director of President Reagan's Citizens For America. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, Los Angeles Metro Magazine and Dallas Voice.

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