Pat Robertson says a lot of things that people dont like. At the beginning of the year, he blamed the devastating earthquake in Haiti on a supposed pact earlier Haitians had made with Satan (I discuss this here). Robertson is closing the year with something that absolutely shocked me when I heard about it. He has come out against the War on Drugs, or at least against mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana offenses. As a Christian who has written and spoken against drug prohibition, I was both surprised and gladdened. Given his influence among Christians and social conservatives, this is very encouraging.
Governments do a lot of silly and sometimes heinous things. The American War on Drugs is both: it is silly, and it is heinous. The economic case for drug legalization is rock-solid and straightforward, and a lot of the maladies and social ills that we associate with drug use are products not of the drugs themselves but of the fact that they are illegal. You dont see many criminal enterprises trafficking in coffee and tea (my drugs of choice) precisely because they are legal. If caffeine were banned, Im certain that it would appear on the underground market, probably in an injectable form.
As Robertson points out, the tough on crime routine backfired for a lot of social conservatives who thought that the answer was brutal suppression of the drug trade. To our shame, the United States is the industrialized worlds leading producer of prisoners. I dont doubt that this would change if drugs were legalized.
The drug war is (literally) a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences. Consider just some of the effects of the drug war. Drugs get ever-more powerful as the drug war drags on. As people are punished more severely for higher volumes of drugs bought and sold, drug manufacturers will substitute toward higher potency.
Since drugs are illegal, fraudulent drug dealers cannot be prosecuted through formal legal channels. Therefore, participants in the drug trade resort to violence. Legalization would change this. Economist Jeffrey Miron has estimated that the US homicide rate would fall by 2575% if we ended drug prohibition.
As a result of prohibition, we have more violence, stronger drugs, and an army of people with shattered lives. There are important moral consequence, as well, and these are moral consequences that should be especially resonant with Christians. My friend Timothy D. Watkins, a professor of music at Texas Christian University, said it well when I was looking for perspectives on this last year:
Part of what [being created in the image of God] entails is the ability to make morally meaningful choices. The story of the Fall in Genesis is in great part about God allowing humans to make choices that are bad for them because without such freedom morality is a meaningless concept. Prohibition is the denial of moral agency.
Drug prohibitionand any other attempt to regulate private, non-coercive behavior, for that mattercheapens our humanity. It isnt like we are getting anything in return. Prohibitions generally give us the exact opposite of what their advocates intend. The war on drugs is a war that is almost all cost with scant benefits.
I can only hope that people listen to Mr. Robertson on this issue as this is a discussion that is long overdue. Prohibition is clearly a policy that causes far more damage than it fixes. Its time for us to learn from our errors and turn from these wicked ways.
One of my New Years Resolutions will be to make better and more effective use of Twitter. You can follow me here.
Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford Universitys Brock School of Business.