Federal Drug War Rethought

10/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bob Barr Principal, Liberty Strategies; 2008 presidential candidate

As both a U.S. Attorney and Member of Congress, I defended drug prohibition. But it has become increasingly clear to me, after much study, that our current strategy has not worked and will not work. The other candidates for president prefer not to address this issue, but ignoring the failure of existing policy exhibits both a poverty of thought and an absence of political courage. The federal government must turn the decision on drug policy back to the states and the citizens themselves.

My change in perspective might shock some people, but leadership requires a willingness to assess evidence and recognize when a strategy is not working. We are paying far too high a price for today's failed policy to continue it simply because it has always been done that way.

It is obvious that, like Prohibition's effort to eradicate alcohol usage, drug prohibition has not succeeded. Despite enormous law enforcement efforts -- including the dedicated service of many thousands of professional men and women -- the government has not halted drug use. Indeed, the problem is worse today than in 1972, when Richard Nixon first coined the phrase "War on Drugs."

Whether we like it or not, tens of millions of Americans have used and will continue to use drugs. Yet in 2005 we spent more than $12 billion on federal drug enforcement efforts. Another $30 billion went to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders.

These people must live forever with the scarlet letter P for prison. Only luck saved even presidents and candidates for president from bearing the same mark, which would have disqualified them from not only high political office, but also many more commonplace jobs.

The federal drug laws affect even those who have never smoked (or inhaled!) a marijuana cigarette. One of the lessons I learned while serving in Congress is how power tends to concentrate in Washington, and how that concentration of power begets more power and threatens individual liberty. The ever-expanding drug war is a perfect illustration of this principle.

We simply must bring our system back into balance. First, the federal government should get out of the "drug war" and allow states to determine their own drug policies. Rather than continuing to arrest and imprison people for offenses that do not directly harm other people, we should focus federal law enforcement on crimes involving serious fraud or violence, with identifiable victims. Even then, only where there is a clear and specific federal interest, should the federal government be involved.

As president, I would also begin dismantling the vast bureaucracies that have grown up as part of the drug war. My drug "czar" would diminish rather than expand the office. Importantly, the vast power of the federal government would no longer be employed to override the decision of the citizens of the states to reform their drug laws.

I also would review my presidential pardon and commutation powers as a possible means to reduce the number of people in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses. We can no longer afford the human and economic costs of imprisoning so many thousands of people for drug possession. This is the most destructive impact of drug prohibition.

With regard to the medicinal use of marijuana, it appears that politics, rather than true science, led to the government's classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, preventing its medical use, and has blocked attempts to reconsider that classification. As president, I would direct the DEA to initiate, for the first time, a truly open, fair, and objective process to test and evaluate the medical potential of marijuana. Based on the studies that I have consulted, I believe the result would be reclassification of the drug.

Regardless of federal policy, the federal government should accept the decisions of the citizens of the states if they choose to allow the medical use of marijuana. As president, I would ensure that no executive branch official interfered in a state initiative or referendum campaign. I also would direct the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Agency to respect state law. Crimes of violence, whether involving drugs or not, must continue to be investigated and prosecuted by the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

None of this means that I believe drug use to be harmless, or appropriate for minors. For that reason I would encourage people and institutions throughout America, from churches to social agencies to sports leagues, to work together to address drug abuse. One of our nation's greatest strengths is the willingness of people to organize outside of government to solve human problems.

But treating what is, at base, a moral, spiritual, and health problem as a matter of federal criminal law has solved nothing. The next president must put politics aside and take a long, hard look at the failure of the federal war on drugs. We must reestablish the primacy of individual choice and state's rights in deciding these issues. This always has been the greatest strength of America, and should be again.

Bob Barr, a former member of Congress from Georgia, is the Libertarian Party's nominee for president.