True conservatives have always opposed government involvement in the private lives of adult citizens. As I have written elsewhere in this BLOG there are many reasons for legalizing marijuana and no good ones for keeping up this wasteful and unethical war. The leading voice for traditional (“Goldwater-style”) conservatives was William F. Buckley who died recently. He also has laid out a strong and persuasive case for ending the war on drugs — from a unique set of legal, ethical and political perspectives. I have abstracted some of his most interesting and informative writings from the magazine (National Review) he founded and led for four decades.
Before his recent death, William F. Buckley’s conservatism was well known and difficult for progressives to stomach. Mr. Buckley declared war on the liberal order, beginning with his assault on Yale, where he had graduated with honors in 1950, as a den of atheistic communism. His most receptive audience became young conservatives (including Hillary Clinton) first energized at the 1960 Republican convention as the right-wing alternative to Nixon (one wonders know how that is even possible.) He mobilized the young followers to oppose the antiwar movement and the hippie counterculture and saw his dreams fulfilled when Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office.
At least he was a brave and independent man – unlike the modern right-wing moralists. So it is astounding that in direct contradiction of conservative and Republican politics, he created a 1996 cover story of the National Review entitled “The War on Drugs Is Lost.” His main point is that “the cost of the drug war is many times more painful, in all its manifestations, than would be the licensing of drugs combined with an intensive education of non-users and intensive education designed to warn those who experiment with drugs.” Much of his article from that issue is below. The whole issue is important and informative.
After you read the abstract of his story from the 1996 Cover story I include information abstracted from some of his magazine columns that are all available on the National Review website. In his syndicated column he wrote of his sister’s cancer chemotherapy and her need for medical marijuana. Buckley’s public stand and personal drama are closely related. Please leave comments.
The War on Drugs is Lost – Wm. F. Buckley Jr.
NATIONAL REVIEW Cover Story – February 1996
WE ARE speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen — yet a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect. …
About ten years later, I deferred to a different allegiance, this one not the presumptive opposition to state intervention, but a different order of priorities. A conservative should evaluate the practicality of a legal constriction, as for instance in those states whose statute books continue to outlaw sodomy, which interdiction is unenforceable, making the law nothing more than print-on-paper. I came to the conclusion that the so-called war against drugs was not working, that it would not work absent a change in the structure of the civil rights to which we are accustomed and to which we cling as a valuable part of our patrimony. And that therefore if that war against drugs is not working, we should look into what effects the war has, a canvass of the casualties consequent on its failure to work. That consideration encouraged me to weigh utilitarian principles: the Benthamite calculus of pain and pleasure introduced by the illegalization of drugs. …
But we do know this, and I approach the nexus of my inquiry, which is that more people die every year as a result of the war against drugs than die from what we call, generically, overdosing. These fatalities include, perhaps most prominently, drug merchants who compete for commercial territory, but include also people who are robbed and killed by those desperate for money to buy the drug to which they have become addicted. …
The cost of the drug war is many times more painful, in all its manifestations, than would be the licensing of drugs combined with intensive education of non-users and intensive education designed to warn those who experiment with drugs. We have seen a substantial reduction in the use of tobacco over the last thirty years, and this is not because tobacco became illegal but because a sentient community began, in substantial numbers, to apprehend the high cost of tobacco to human health, even as, we can assume, a growing number of Americans desist from practicing unsafe sex and using polluted needles in this age of AIDS. …
And added to the above is the point of civil justice. Those who suffer from the abuse of drugs have themselves to blame for it. This does not mean that society is absolved from active concern for their plight. It does mean that their plight is subordinate to the plight of those citizens who do not experiment with drugs but whose life, liberty, and property are substantially affected by the illegalization of the drugs sought after by the minority.
I have not spoken of the cost to our society of the astonishing legal weapons available now to policemen and prosecutors; of the penalty of forfeiture of one’s home and property for violation of laws which, though designed to advance the war against drugs, could legally be used — I am told by learned counsel — as penalties for the neglect of one’s pets. I leave it at this, that it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana. I would hope that the good offices of your vital profession would mobilize at least to protest such excesses of wartime zeal, the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre. And perhaps proceed to recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors.
Reefer Madness – Our current Prohibition.
William F. Buckley – June 10, 2003, National Review
Although Governor Clinton of Arkansas introduced legislation to lessen state penalties for marijuana, he went on, as president, to treat marijuana as if it were as innocent as adultery. He doubled the arrests for marijuana infractions. When Nixon declared his tough-drug policies, athwart the recommendation of his own commission which had advocated licensing marijuana for individual home consumption, arrests climbed to over 100,000 per year. In 2001, 720,000 Americans were arrested for pot. About 20,000 inmates in the federal system have been incarcerated primarily for a marijuana offense. Those in state systems would equal that figure, and exceed it. …
The marijuana laws can most directly be compared to the Prohibition-era laws, which didn’t work, undermined the law, and were capriciously enforced. Pot consumption varies, but not in correlation with the laws’ throw-weight. If you buy an ounce in New York State, that could bring you a fine of $l00; in Louisiana, a jail sentence of 20 years. Ed Rosenthal is quoted by author Schlosser. Will the laws in America dissipate, as they have done in Europe? He doesn’t think so. “They’ve made the laws so brittle, one day they’re going to break.” The whole edifice of prohibition would come down, he predicted, “like the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Schlosser nicely summarized Rosenthal’s prediction. “A group of powerful, white, middle-aged men will meet in a room to discuss what to do about marijuana. And they will reach the only logical conclusion: tax it.” Like booze, some will then go on to abuse it, though with consequences less dire.
Free Weeds: The marijuana debate.
By William F. Buckley Jr. June 29, 2004 National Review
… Legal practices should be informed by realities. These are enlightening, in the matter of marijuana. There are approximately 700,000 marijuana-related arrests made very year. Most of these—87 percent—involve nothing more than mere possession of small amounts of marijuana. This exercise in scrupulosity costs us $10-15 billion per year in direct expenditures alone. Most transgressors caught using marijuana aren’t packed away to jail, but some are, and in Alabama, if you are convicted three times of marijuana possession, they’ll lock you up for 15 years to life. Professor Ethan Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance, writing in National Review, estimates at 100,000 the number of Americans currently behind bars for one or another marijuana offense.
Today we have illegal marijuana for whoever wants it. An estimated 100 million Americans have smoked marijuana at least once, the great majority, abandoning its use after a few highs. But to stop using it does not close off its availability. A Boston commentator observed years ago that it is easier for an 18-year old to get marijuana in Cambridge than to get beer. Vendors who sell beer to minors can forfeit their valuable licenses. It requires less effort for the college student to find marijuana than for a sailor to find a brothel. Still, there is the danger of arrest (as 700,000 people a year will tell you), of possible imprisonment, of blemish on one’s record. The obverse of this is increased cynicism about the law.
Culture Clash: States, drugs, and the Supreme Court.
By William F. Buckley Jr. November 30, 2004 – National Review
The modern version of the civil-rights plea is: Unless I can have marijuana, I will suffer, I will vomit, I will, finally, die. The hardliners haven’t neglected a defense on this matter. Hand on a bible, they will swear that all the effective ingredients in a cannabis plant can be leached out and poured into a cookie of sorts, the taking of which will relieve you just as a draw on a cannabis weed would do.
The scientists have a hard time here, because it is difficult to argue with a flesh-and-blood-human being who says take your placebo and run it up your behind. A colleague of mine, the author of four outstanding books on American history, put it roughly like this: I am telling you I tried the placebo, and I tried marijuana. I continue wretchedly sick with the fake stuff and hugely solaced by the grass. I am an honors graduate of Yale University, politically a conservative opposed to drug legalization and please leave off the cant about how it doesn’t make any difference, because I had cancer, and it does.
The complications in a comprehensive ban are manifest. What is the proper punishment for the mother who brings a reefer to her son’s cancer bed? And there is the putative respect paid to the medical community. Does the article in the Constitution that gives Congress the right to regulate commerce extend to writing law on the uses of a drug, given that medical experience is uniquely qualified to pass on such questions?
People in the western states especially have been drawing on cannabis with virtual impunity, but what the Supreme Court is being asked to do is to say: One set of laws is right, another set of laws is wrong, and we’re going to tell you which is which. Sometimes, the observer will say to himself, nothing less than that can be done, as when we were coexisting with unequal treatment under the law. Sometimes the mature democracy will say: We have to adjudicate. After all, we did it for Dred Scott.
The Court On High: Medical Marijuana and the Supremes.
By William F. Buckley Jr. June 7, 2005
The Supreme Court did what conservative court-watchers should welcome. It looked the California situation in the face and said: If Congress doesn’t like the law, let Congress change it, but don’t look to the Supreme Court to improvise on the drug laws. There are now four collateral movements in the matter of the use of medical marijuana where individual states have authorized it:
- Federal prosecutors are free, after this clarification from the Supreme Court, to proceed to arrest users, on the grounds that the law is the law.
- The plaintiffs in the current case were two ailing women. Having lost with the Supreme Court, they have said that they intend to continue to use marijuana. One of them said that, actually, she has no alternative, because if she doesn’t take the drug, she will simply die.
- Observers sympathetic to the state laws allowing marijuana for medical purposes take comfort in realism. There aren’t enough federal prosecutors in town to move against all the users. One estimate is that only one percent of such transgressions is actually meeting up with intervention by the federal constabulary.
- In his opinion, Justice Stevens hinted that there were two ways to address the deadlock. The first and most obvious, of course, is for Congress to revise the current statute to make the exception for medical marijuana. But there is another approach, namely for the Executive to reclassify marijuana for medical purposes.
Short Selection from Interview By Noah Pollak and Dan Mindus
From Restoration Magazine – Posted January 24, 2000
RESTORATION: Conservatives make the argument that marijuana should be outlawed because of the culture associated with its use. Irving Kristol: “What counts is the meaning and moral status of the action, not its physiological dimensions…today drug taking has become a mass habit–among our young masses especially–whose purpose is to secede from our society and our civilization; and such a declaration requires a moral answer, not a medicinal one.”
BUCKLEY: I’d reject it, but I think it’s persuasive. James Burnham said, Look, alcohol is our cultural drug, and under the circumstances it has historically been excluded from the general proscriptive approach to drugs–we don’t want a second drug. Kristol’s making the point that when defiance is intended, it should be accepted as such. A lot of people during the 60s were taking drugs because they wanted to drop out, and that kind of a solipsism generates counter pressure of a kind Kristol’s talking about. …
RESTORATION: Let me read you something you wrote in Execution Eve. “In the past four or five years, millions of middle Americans suddenly found out that marijuana was something with which their own children were experimenting. Dozens of middle Americans began to discover that the people they were in favor of sending to jail included, by theoretical extension, their own sons.” How does that apply to your own experiences and your own views?
BUCKLEY: What I should say is that although smoking marijuana was a defiant gesture by many people who did it, it became so universally used, it was used then by people who didn’t understand themselves to be engaged in a cultural revolution or sort of Woodstockery. But I don’t think that is Kristol’s point, because he was talking about the people who were advocating marijuana as sort of a solipsistic gesture. But when I wrote that other business, this was after my experience with Ed Koch when he told me that a bill that he had sponsored to commission an investigation into marijuana. …
RESTORATION: Yes, if prohibition is premised on the idea that drugs that are used by people who are interested in separating themselves from society should be prohibited, it would stand to reason that once the drug is no longer being used, or the ethics surrounding the drug are no longer countercultural, the prohibition should be removed.
BUCKLEY: I think that’s totally persuasive. The idea of marijuana as a gateway drug I don’t think is borne out by statistics. That’s like saying that everybody who is guilty of rape once masturbated. There’s no etiology that links marijuana with heroin.
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There are quite a few conservatives who are pro-marijuana and pro-legalization of drugs, myself included. I would like to see everyone, libs and cons, stand united together to battle this insane policy and am looking forward to the day when I can spark a doob at a bar (I don’t drink alcohol but, I enjoy the atmosphere of a nice bar) or anywhere else, and not worry about forfeiting my freedom.
With Eric Holder’s new legislation prohibiting federal law enforcement from harassing medical marijuana advocates, growers, providers, and patients, I believe it won’t be much longer before this dream is a reality.
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