Gary Johnson Is Right

This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on August 23, 1999.
In a political world where more and more politicians let their pollsters tell them what to think, it’s refreshing to discover that the Great American West has produced another leader of courage and integrity. Like Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who opposed big government before it was popular to do so, and Mike Gravel of Alaska, who campaigned against the draft and the Vietnam War, Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico is a man who says what he thinks.

On such issues as school vouchers and the right to bear arms, Johnson has shown two strong tendencies: a commitment to individual freedom and a willingness to take a hard look at the evidence. Looking at the facts, he concluded that crime is reduced when law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry guns and that kids would get a better education if their families had a choice of schools.

Now Johnson has shown those same characteristics on another controversial issue. He’s one of the first high-ranking elected officials to question the war on drugs. “I believe that our war on drugs has been a dismal failure. We are putting more and more money into a war that we are absolutely losing,” he told the Taos Chamber of Commerce.

It’s hard to argue with that. Futile efforts to enforce prohibition have been pursued even more vigorously in the 1980s and 1990s than they were during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Drug enforcement cost about $22 billion in the Reagan years and another $45 billion in the four years of the Bush administration. The federal government spent $16 billion on drug control programs in 1998 alone and plans to spend $18 billion this year. States and local communities spend even more.

What good has it all done? Well, total drug arrests are now more than 1.5 million a year. There are about 400,000 drug offenders in jails and prisons now, and over 80 percent of the increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995 was due to drug convictions. Drug offenders are about 60 percent of all federal prisoners, while those in federal prison for violent offenses are only 12.4 percent of the total.

But of course, all the arrests and incarcerations haven’t stopped the use and abuse of drugs, or the drug trade, or the crime associated with black-market transactions. Cocaine and heroin supplies are up; the more our Customs agents interdict, the more smugglers import.

As for discouraging young people from using drugs, the massive federal effort has largely been a dud. Despite the soaring expenditures on anti-drug efforts, in 1995 about half the students in the United States tried an illegal drug before they graduated from high school. Every year from 1975 to 1995 at least 82 percent of high school seniors said they found marijuana “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain.

That’s why more and more thoughtful people have been questioning the war on drugs and calling for decriminalization, from Kurt Schmoke, a former prosecutor and now the Democratic mayor of Baltimore, to George Shultz, who was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, to Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party governor of Minnesota.

When a public policy isn’t working, we should try something different. If spending more than $30 billion a year and arresting 1.5 million people a year isn’t stopping drug use and abuse, then we should try a different strategy.

Gary Johnson has said that he doesn’t want New Mexico to legalize drugs on its own, lest the state become a haven for addicts from the rest of the country. That’s a legitimate concern. What we should be debating right now is federal policy, and we should start by remembering that the United States is a federal republic, in which the 50 states make most of the decisions. Congress should deal with drug prohibition the way it dealt with alcohol prohibition. The Twenty-First Amendment did not actually legalize the sale of alcohol; it simply repealed the federal prohibition and returned to the states the authority to set alcohol policy. States took the opportunity to design diverse liquor policies that were in tune with the preferences of their citizens. After 1933 three states and hundreds of counties continued to practice prohibition. Other states chose various forms of alcohol legalization.

Congress should withdraw from the war on drugs and let the states set their own policies, just as they already do for alcohol. For their part, the states should prohibit drug sales to children, just as alcohol sales to children are prohibited today. Driving under the influence of drugs should be illegal. But beyond such obvious restrictions, states should be free to set the drug policies that make sense to them, up to and including sales to adults by licensed stores, much as alcohol is sold today.

Federal withdrawal from the drug war would be an acknowledgment that our current drug policies have failed. It would restore authority to the states, as the Founders envisioned. It would save taxpayers’ money. And over time it would allow us to develop an approach to drug use that abandons prohibition and massive incarceration in favor of a common-sense system in which the propensity of some people to use drugs is accepted and dealt with sensibly.

Whether or not we eventually adopt such a policy, we should certainly have an honest debate on the subject. Voters in every state should be glad that New Mexico has a citizen-governor who is not afraid to take on tough issues and challenge the status quo.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.