A Conservative Framework for Drug Reform
Growing up, there was an ethos at the root of the conservatism that I learned…personal responsibility; responsibility for my choices and responsibility to accept the consequences with grace and self-reflection so that I might be a better person for my failures.
Responsibility is the most fundamental premise of the rights enshrined in the Constitution and at the core of the conservative mind. They are two sides of the same coin. Without responsibility, there are no rights, only a state of nature in which anarchy and brutality rule. But it is the processes of life themselves that make us responsible.
From a young age we learn the relationship between action and consequence as we touch hot stoves, ride our bikes into trees, say the wrong things, and make bad decisions. These consequences themselves are what help to shape us into rational individuals, moral beings and responsible citizens.
One of the great conservative indictments of liberalism is that liberal policies separate the individual from the consequences of their decisions; replacing rights and their corresponding responsibilities with entitlement and obligation while abdicating responsibility to third parties, usually the state or other groups of people. Thus millions of people escape the opportunity to develop as self-sufficient, rational individuals infused with the virtues that can only come from overcoming challenges and accepting consequences.
It has always confounded me that occasionally conservatives utterly abandon this most fundamental belief and searing condemnation of liberalism to instead embrace collective responsibility at the expense of the individual. In certain instances the party of states rights and individualism demands collectivism in contradiction to the Constitution and the philosophical underpinnings of Republicanism itself.
The federal drug war is one of the most blatant examples of the hypocrisy undermining the credibility of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. “Just say no” is a wonderful admonition to an individual, but the GOP policy preference has been “Just say no…or else.” The results have been predictable and unfortunate.
Fifty-five percent of all prisoners in the United States are drug offenders. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of our population than any country on earth. You have a greater chance of going to prison in the US than you do in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Syria combined!
This is shameful in the land of the free. Moreover, it isn’t conservative to empower the federal government to criminalize activities clearly delineated to the states and to the people by the Constitution; consistent with our most cherished values.
The historic analogy to alcohol prohibition should be clear. The same perverse consequences have followed – soaring prices lead to increasingly organized and violent gangs, spiraling corruption, staggering body counts and social decay.
These costs are the price of prohibition, not the price of drug use. That cost is born by individuals and families. But criminalization does not alleviate the personal price, it exacerbates it. It replaces treatment with incarceration, ruins careers and denies access to education; the very things that help people overcome addiction. Only when personal responsibility replaces government command will the social cost of the drug war recede.
The price of drugs is artificially high. This is not in dispute. In fact the DEA releases an annual report in which they state clearly that the enforcement objective is to squeeze supplies. They see high prices for street drugs as a mark of their success. This premise is horrifying in its implications.
Higher prices may push some consumers out of the drug market, but others will just rob and murder to get their fix while the suppliers happily reap the rewards of the drug warrior’s efforts by spending their bloated profits on bigger guns, more soldiers, and greater power. It is telling that among those opposing the Washington and Colorado marijuana reform initiatives were American marijuana farmers who realized that the price of their product would drop dramatically with an end to prohibition.
Mandatory sentencing guidelines are another element of the drug war on which the GOP has been on the wrong side for too long. In the desire to appear strong on crime, many of our politicians have catered to our fears and prejudices by promoting “get tough” approaches to drug sentencing. Again we find conservatives promoting a “one size fits all” national solution that robs states, localities, and judges of their discretion to make public policy decisions based on the needs of the communities and the offenders.
Given that some drugs are primarily a problem within the African American community, harsh mandatory minimums have gutted neighborhoods and deprived individuals, families, and communities from seeking reform and rehabilitation. An entire generation of young black men has a better shot at prison than a diploma. An important electoral step into the African American community is to support the end of federal sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug possession. Families need fathers.
Drug reform is pro-life and pro-family. In six years the Mexican drug wars has claimed up to 100,000 lives. A population the size of Abilene Texas has been wiped off the face of the earth because government has put itself between producers and consumers. These are women, children, law officers and even drug dealers, mules, and enforcers who might have been salesmen, office workers and mechanics if not for the lure of artificially-inflated drug profits in historically poor areas.
This is a profound human tragedy that flies in the face of the deeply rooted conservative beliefs in the sanctity of human life, the central role of the family in society, and the virtues of free markets and self-regulation. Indeed, the border situation should be a cautionary tale of WHY we conservatives believe in these things.
The destabilizing influence of the drug war on Mexico is also a clear and growing national security issue for the United States. Anarchy on the border, police corruption, and escalating violence are threats that can be exploited by jihadists and hostile governments.
Moreover, the drug war is fueling illegal immigration and creating a violent and dangerous situation for Americans living near the southern border. Drug law reform IS immigration reform. We must support policies that protect American’s property while relieving the pressure on the border. It is morally right and politically necessary. There are few things that could do more for the GOP in the esteem of Latino Americans than leading the charge to end the slaughter and return normalcy to the border.
The criminalization of drugs is too easily conflated into the criminalization of Hispanics. In fact, the first marijuana laws were written for the expressed purpose of creating a legal justification to deport Mexicans from the American Southwest.
Drug reform moves us from a budget-draining war on drugs to a budget-gaining tax regime that replaces prison with treatment and wasted revenue with new funding for cash strapped states and cities. Drug reform is fiscally conservative in addition to being morally justified.
Bill Kristol recently wrote that, “conservative leaders tend to embrace centralization.” No one would know that better than Bill Kristol who has spent his life in Washington advocating for federal command and control on a host of social issues including the drug war, but the Republican tradition is very different than that.
It’s a tradition that sees temperance, responsibility, and moderation as personal virtues derived from families, churches, and a just society, not imposed by government dictate and enforced with the threat of violence. Yet today that is the golem of our making. A federal behemoth that destroys lives, shatters families, and creates perverse incentives that ripple across the American social fabric, tearing at the very heart of what makes us free.
There are few areas where government has proven its incompetence more vividly than the failed drug war. After billions of dollars wasted, millions of lives destroyed and whole communities devastated, we face a social problem that has gotten demonstrably worse.
Only when the Republican Party accepts its traditional values and repudiates the notion that the federal government is the proper vehicle to impose moral standards will we see the brand again identified with individual empowerment and personal responsibility.
Drug reform will not end the tragedy of drug addiction, but it will create the space to address the human costs without ripping parents from children and without surrendering another generation of inner city youth to violence and hopelessness. It will relieve our prisons and shrink our budgets. It will help those in the grip of addiction to get the treatment they need, surrounded by their family support network and their communities. It will return accountability for individual behavior to individuals and free the government of a burden it was never prepared to bear.
This practical approach will create opportunities. With young voters, the impression that the GOP is offering relevant and practical solutions consistent with both conservative principles and 21st century cultural realities will give many twenty-somethings reason to give Republicans another look.
It will also give Republicans moral standing within the African-American and Hispanic communities at a time when the demographic shifts necessitate it. The GOP struggle for relevance is a struggle for moral standing. Holding on to failed policies for the sake of dogma simply won’t cut it.
The Dream Act and Obamacare have given the Democrats that moral standing within these communities (just ask a Hispanic mother how important staying on the family insurance is to her and her adult children). Republicans must not surrender our foundational beliefs, but we must not shrink from the fight for that ground either. Only when we regain our moral footing within those communities will we have the authority and credibility to ask for their votes.
Drug law reform is a sensible, ethical and philosophically conservative way to return power to states and individuals, curb social chaos, reduce federal power, shrink budget gaps and reframe the GOP in moral and practical terms.
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