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William Murchison
William Murchison
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Have We Lost the Drug Wars?


Forty-odd (exceedingly odd, I might add) years ago, who would have envisioned a national war against drugs? Nobody took drugs — nobody you knew, nobody but jazz musicians and funny foreign folk. Then, after a while, it came to seem that everybody did. Drugs became a new front in the war on an old social culture that was taking hard licks aplenty in those days.

I still don't understand why people take drugs. Can't they just pour themselves a nice shot of bourbon? On the other hand, as Gary S. Becker and Kevin M. Murphy argue, in a lucid piece for the Wall Street Journal's Review section, prison populations have quintupled since 1980, in large degree thanks to laws meant to decrease drug usage by prohibiting it; 50,000 Mexicans may have died since 2006 in their country's war against traffickers, and addiction has probably increased.

Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Murphy, a University of Chicago colleague, argue for putting decriminalization of drugs on the table for national consideration. The federal war on drugs, which commenced in 1971, was supposed to discourage use by punishing the sale and consumption of drugs. It hasn't worked quite that way.

"[T]he harder governments push the fight," the two argue, "the higher drug prices become to compensate the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished." It can likewise lead "dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption." In the meantime, Becker and Murphy point out, various states have decriminalized marijuana use or softened enforcement of existing prohibitions. Barely two months ago, voters in Colorado and Washington made their own jurisdictions hospitable to the friendly consumption of a joint.

The two economists say full decriminalization of drugs would, among other things, "lower drug prices, reduce the role of criminals in producing and selling drugs, improve many inner-city neighborhoods, [and] encourage more minority students in the U.S.

to finish high school." To the Journal's question, "Have we lost the war on drugs?" 89.8 percent of readers replied, "Yes."

One isn't deeply surprised to hear it. National tides seem presently to be running in favor of abortion and gay marriage — two more elements of the culture wars that began, contemporaneously, with the battle for the right to puff pot. Swimming against powerful tides is no politician's idea of a participatory sport. Conceivably, armed with practical (i.e., $$$$$$) reasons for decriminalizing drugs, advocates of such a policy course will prevail. We can then sit around wondering what all the fuss was about.

What it was about — you had to have been there to remember now — was the defense of cultural inhibitions. Sounds awful, doesn't it?

As the counterculture saw things, inhibitions — voluntary, self-imposed restraints — dammed up self-expression, self-realization. They dammed up a lot more than that, in truth: much of it in serious need of restraint and prevention.

The old pre-1960s culture assigned a higher role to the head than to the heart. Veneration of instincts risked the overthrow of social guardrails that inhibited bad, harmful and anti-social impulses. The drug culture that began in the '60s elevated to general popularity various practices, modes, devices, and so forth that moved instinct — bad or good, who cared? — to the top of the scale of values. There was a recklessness about the enterprise — do whatever turns you on, man! — incompatible with sober thought: which was fine with an era that had had it, frankly, with sober thought.

Drugs are very much a part of our time and culture, which is why the war on drugs looks more and more like a losing proposition. The point compellingly advanced by Becker and Murphy may win out over the next decade. If so, the drug gangs may disappear, the prisons disgorge tens of thousands. Will things in general be as good as they might have been had the culture walked a different path 40 years ago — the path of civilized "inhibition"? Ah. We get down here to brass tacks.

William Murchison, author and commentator, writes from Dallas. To find out more about William Murchison, and to see features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



4 Comments | Post Comment
I don't understand either why someone would choose drugs while bourbon is plentiful. But they do. We don't need to understand it. What we need to understand is the myraid of reasons the drug war has failed. This is really one subject that liberals and conservatives can come to agreement on. Many authors have thrown their two cents in against the drug war and I applaud this guy for doing the same. I haven't read a single op-ed defending the drug war. The facts to support it just aren't there, and they never were.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Tue Jan 8, 2013 9:26 AM
Re: Chris McCoy;... Why would anyone need drugs qua drugs when religion, alcohol, money, sex, food, violence, power, and horsepower are still available...
Certainly, so long as money alone is within our reach, all the other diversion from our pitifully unhappy lives can be ours... And, it is good to condemn those who use even the most desparate means, up to and including suicide to escape their misearble realities, and that contempt too is a pleasure and an unnecessary one, and so too a drug....
It is not just about having it all that makes it great... Your empty fantasies embraced is only a fraction of the destination... The most pleasureable aspect of being numb, or on the contrary, to be able to feel without feeling pain is only made sublime by the knowledge of those tortured by their reality, having their want and squallar and inhumanity in their situation be absolutely inescapable...
We all have the same life, and I think it was Hemingway who noted that our awarness of our own deaths gives us no sense of pity; not for ourselves, and not for humanity... Look at some of the fossils who never leave our political scene...They could survive for years with diseases that would soon kill a working man...Does the violence and velocity of which we live our lives make fresh hearts too available to these dark shades...
Life eternal to some makes life all too short for others... Life rich for some makes unendurable poverty for others... Life knowing all of human fulfillment and happiness for a few breeds lives uncertain and miserable for many... In every society there are some winners and some losers, and in the end and sooner still, all are dead... Some ride and others carry, and perhaps it was not so bad when kings lived little better than their peasants... But now the life is sucked out of society with its meaning, and those who pump meaning into their lives with a seringe are condemned...
We who are to live salute you who are about to die who in dying will not grasp for a moment the cosmic drama in which you play your bit parts... Those who destroy themselves out of their misery do the rich and powerful an immense service...They do not take their reality with them, but in their suffering the nightmares they should rebel to think of, they allow the dream to continue for the rich...
Anyone who suggests the possibility of a society where reality did not need escape from, where forms like economy and government actually did work, and all was not a big device for sucking the life out of people with their meaning- ought to be shot on sight... The very notion of it is dangerous... It may be illegal to torture people, but it is absolutely insane to think we might have a society where people are not tortured, forced to endure pain for us we would not for a moment endure for ourselves, and it is revolutionary as well...
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Jan 9, 2013 1:08 PM
Re: Chris McCoy;... I hate to state the obvious, though I could phrase it as Socratic Ignorance... What makes great men great???
Like all things common to humanity, it is irrationality...Gearge Carlin said: I always wanted to be some body... I should have been more specific...Considering the fact that no matter how we demean others we gain not a bit more meaning by the act, this constant demeaning of people as the price of having any kind of momentary existence is tragic...And it is tragic because that feeling of greatness, or meaning, however it is phrased should not seem relative, as though I could have more by you having less...But people are clearly great because they are small, and if they did not feel it, feel small, feel poor, feel ignorant, feel powerless, and etc, they would never turn their actions to their improvement, and these objectives which are not objects, but emotional conditions are usually viewed relatively...
To me it is fine to compare ones self to the dead because we will soon be dead, and the dead are our teachers in life... It is fine to compare yourself to yourself and look for relative moral or physical progress... But we see people who need do little more than live their lives to be happy, and this is a quality agonizing to those who must BE somebody...
I am not immune to it... I needed to read the books I have because I could not read at all for such a long time, and no one had the time to show me how... I needed to learn because I felt ignorant, and the people I lived with made a point of drawing attention to it... I need now to be an old guy who rides just about every rickity rackety old roller coaster that I get near because while it scares the hell out of me it is the perfect mataphore for my life with all the ups and downs, twists and turns and loops that I have always hated and never anticipated because I want to love it, or at least, not fear it... And some day I will look at a coaster and say: That isn't me any more, and I don't feel like feeling I'm going to spew...
Look at how many rich people began their lives in poverty... Do you think if they owned the whole world that they would not feel the want and shame and pain of being poor... People change their forms, even adapt their behavior because they cannot change themselves...Some people may be incapable of happiness, and if I am one of them does that mean I must be jealous of all who are happy with no apparent motive???
People can never escape who they are, and the very attempt, whether by drugs or some other excess is dangerous because life demands a certain attention to detail, a willingness to walk the line, an alertness to signs that tragic people always miss, and no one dares to miss...It would be fun if needing change that we could morph into a human imago, and leave our former selves behind, but the opportunities for human growth are so limited, and we find that no matter who we become we have become only a more bitter reflection of our former selves....
To be rational is to be aware of the extent to which we and all people are driven by our irrationality, and- not be so driven...The precarious balance that makes people human demands a balance between emotions and reason, and to stray too far in one direction makes one a beast as the other direction makes one a maniac...If we cannot make it impossible for people to be either beasts or maniacs we should at least make it more difficult and unacceptable... It is enough to know that people do not gain meaning or more meaning by the process of demeaning others... Their meaning is their life just as your meaning is your life... Live and let live...The happy life is not taken like candy out of the mouths of a babies, but is realize by growth out of infancy into old age bearing injury with dignity, understanding and humility, and resisting the injury of others...
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Jan 9, 2013 3:06 PM
Sir;... There never was any civilized inhibition... Inhibitions are common to primitive peoples who always demonstrate morality and self control, the essentials of democracy... Civilizations have come and gone, and never returned once gone because they discouraged inhibition and this has been their destruction...People followed the rich and powerful into every excess in search of meaning in their meaningless lives and they did not find their lives or their meaning, and meekly accepted death... How many fat drunk Romans sated with pleasures opened their veins and forgot to close them up is a quantity as unknown as uncared to be known...
They died, and we die, and no one mourns or can have it soon enough... It is the death wish, perhaps responsible for all the advances of civilization, but ultimately inviting death for the whole society... Perhaps meaning awaits us on the other side... There is none of it here...Let's go to the vomitorium dear, and I shall hold your hair...
Do you ever wonder why Christianity so soon supplanted Roman Paganism...Thought and theories of the after life abounded under paganism; but only Christianity with its defered life after life could give death any meaning...
When people are forced for any reason including their own ignorance, to give their lives to a form that does not give them their lives back fullfilled, then life has all the meaning of death, which is no meaning...
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Jan 9, 2013 3:24 PM
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