Opening Remarks Beyond Prohibition Conference

October 5, 1999 • Speeches

Good morning. My name is Ed Crane, I’m president of the Cato Institute and I’d like to welcome you to what promises to be an informative and I’d venture, very interesting conference. I should point out that the Cato Institute itself does not take positions on issues. Our policy staff and the people who write for us do. So with that in mind let me briefly tell you what I think about the War on Drugs and why I asked Tim Lynch to put this program together.

At a minimum, it seems to me, there has been far too little thoughtful debate over the War on Drugs. Advocates of the drug war drown out critics with derisive and dismissive epithets, often implying that those who favor decriminalization do so because they are in favor of drug use, which is simply not true.

The truth is that, while on any given day some law enforcement agency is announcing the “largest drug bust in history,” the War on Drugs has been an abject failure. General McCaffrey, the appropriately titled Drug Czar, points to increased spending and growing incarceration as proof of the drug war’s success. It is, rather, proof of a bureaucracy’s success. For we now spend $18 billion a year on this mostly futile crusade. Tens of thousands of families in America depend on federal spending on the drug war for their livelihood. Which is not to question their motives, anymore than to question the motives of the bureaucrats at the Dept. of Energy, who undoubtedly think they’re doing something constructive about energy. It’s only to point out that the Public Choice dynamic, the bureaucratic instinct to defend turf, is alive and well in Gen. McCaffrey’s office. It seems to me he is not interested in a civil debate over this issue, which is why he turned down an invitation to participate in these proceedings, even though he has time to fly to New Mexico on Thursday to do damage control in the wake of Governor Gary Johnson’s call for legalization of drugs as the best way to deal with the problem of drug use.

And I want to make clear that drug use would be a problem, as my friend P.J. O’Rourke will point out today, even in the face of legalization. But alcohol abuse is a bigger problem and so is too much fat in our diets, especially mine. The issue is not whether or not there is a problem. The issue is how to deal with it. Which is why the subtitle of this conference is, “An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century.”

Because the current approach treats Americans with very little respect. It treats them like children. And let me say here that advocates of legalization do point out that more resources will be available to keep drugs out of the hands of minors once we start dealing with adult drug use in a mature fashion.

There are reasons, I think, why some of the most prominent critics of the War on Drugs come from libertarian and conservative backgrounds. People like William F. Buckley, George Shultz, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, and Walter Williams. These are people who understand Public Choice theory, they understand what the great Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek called the fatal conceit — the mistaken notion that government can effectively engineer social arrangements — they understand the power of the forces of supply and demand, they understand the unintended consequences that invariably accompany federal intervention, and, not least, they understand the need to take the Constitution seriously.

In the name of the War on Drugs, due process is thrown to the wind and private property confiscated under so‐​called forfeiture laws that make a mockery of the very concept of private property. In the name of the War on Drugs financial privacy and internet privacy are under constant assault. In the name of the War on Drugs Latin American nations become pawns of U.S. domestic policy. In the name of the War on Drugs police forces throughout the nation become corrupt, and in the name of the War on Drugs some of the best and the brightest of our inner‐​city young people get drawn into a criminal subculture that affects their attitudes on not just drugs, but education, the family, civility itself.

Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on the War on Drugs and yet, drugs are available everywhere. Across the street from the White House. Across the street from the Cato Institute. Even in prisons. Interdiction is a joke. If they can’t keep drugs out of the prisons, how in the world do they propose doing so in civil society, short of creating a police state?

Drug use by adults is a problem. It is time to deal with that problem in an open, honest and mature manner. Not by forcing users underground. Not by creating turf wars where innocent children get shot. Not by destroying families by jailing peaceful citizens with lengthy, minimum mandated sentences. And not by continuing to feed a failed $18 billion bureaucracy.

In my personal view, it is past time to put an end to this tragic revisit of Prohibition, and while not everyone on the program or in this audience will agree with me, at least I can thank you all for having the decency to recognize that a civil debate over the War on Drugs is worth participating in. I genuinely thank you for coming and hope you enjoy the conference. Thank you.

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