September 15, 2000


The War on Drugs Rots America

by Sheldon Richman

President Clinton may have found a legacy, and the Republicans in Congress are backing him. His legacy? Taking the United States into the civil war raging in Colombia by an injection of $1.3 billion in money and military equipment, including combat helicopters, not to mention hundreds of American pilots and "advisors." And why is he doing that? Because, he and his GOP allies say, it is necessary to prosecute our domestic War on Drugs.

Such is the logic of the War on Drugs — which is really a war against people. It's another reason to dump that policy forthwith. Colombia is the scene of continuing violence involving the government, so-called left-wing guerillas, and so-called right-wing militias.

Peasants, meanwhile, can make a living growing coca, which is turned into cocaine for the American market. (Eighty percent of American cocaine originates in Colombia.) The U.S. government wants to stop the peasants from growing coca on the curious ground that the demand on American streets will dry up if the Colombian supply vanishes. The guerillas protect poor coca growers in return for money, which finances their activities, which in turn stimulates activity by the militias, which profit from drugs through their ties to wealthy coca growers. The militias work with the regular army, which will never win an award for respecting individual rights.

No one should rule out that the drug war is just an excuse for the United States to help the Colombian government in its civil war. But that is no business of ours. Intervening there is certainly not authorized by the U.S. Constitution. No Colombian guerilla threatens the United States.

But some people will cling to the drug-war rationalization. By now, we should all see through that phony-baloney justification. As long as Americans want cocaine, someone will be willing to serve that market. It is sheer simple-mindedness to think that destroying the livelihood of Colombian farmers is going to end the cocaine trade. It's drug prohibition and the resulting black market that make growing coca so lucrative in the first place.

When will we give up this idiotic crusade, which has not stopped drug use but has trashed the Constitution, corrupted the rule of law, violated our rights to be secure in our homes, destroyed our financial privacy, turned inner-city neighborhoods into war zones, and provided excuses for America to police the world?

Let's get down to basics: people have to right to ingest anything they wish. What they don't have a right to do is violate the rights of others—whether the perpetrators are intoxicated or not. The War on Drugs is premised on a fundamentally anti-American idea: that the government may tell us what we may and may not consume.

You and I may believe that using drugs is a stupid and self-destructive thing to do. That's not the point. Either we are free or we are not. And in a free country people are left alone by the police until they violate someone else's rights.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation ( in Fairfax, Va., and editor of "Ideas on Liberty" magazine.

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