US Drug Policy: An Issue Worth Discussing

At one of last fall's Republican primary debates Congressman Ron Paul made a remark in response to a question regarding immigration and the proposed border fence that no other candidate made and that no candidate challenged. He pointed out that the problems the United States has at its border with Mexico are driven by the drug war. According to the Congressman “our drug laws are driving this.” Aside from the fact that the debate’s moderators cut off further discussion of the issue after the Congressman gave his answer, there’s another reason that no candidate could dispute or challenge Paul on that point: they know he’s right.

Trafficking in illegal drugs is as lucrative a profession as it is because of the illegality. Anyone who examines the facts objectively knows this to be true. Just like the Mafia did during the days of Prohibition, the Mexican drug cartels and their partners in the United States maintain their control over this lucrative business with intimidation, corruption, and violence. The Mexican cartels are equally if not more successful in their trade.

In my opinion, the moderators and candidates missed a tremendous opportunity to have a real discussion about our nation’s drug policy. Instead, they pretended not to hear or dismissed the issue as not worthy of discussion. There are many possible reasons for not engaging in discussion on that issue, but there is one reason that’s been proffered that I want to examine in a little further detail.

No one is going to talk about making major changes to drug policy in a Republican primary debate because the base of the party simply isn’t interested in having that discussion. Ron Paul, it is said, represents the fringe position on that issue and, therefore, spending time having an in-depth discussion of it is not useful. I can understand where that view comes from (though I don’t agree that that should make it completely off-limits as some would have), but I also think that that sort of attitude is demonstrably wrong.

As Doug Wead points out, “In 2008, 74% of the American people did not know what the Federal Reserve was. A poll last year showed that 74% now agreed with Dr. Paul that this institution should be accountable and it should be audited.” How did that happen? How did we go from a state of affairs in which three quarters of poll respondents did not even know there was such an institution as the Federal Reserve to one in which three quarters of them believe the Fed should be monitored and audited? The answer is obvious: Ron Paul talked about the issue whenever the opportunity presented itself. In 2008 the base of the Republican Party was not interested in the issue (nor did they even know there was an issue), so according to the rationale above, it would have been a waste of time to discuss the issue. Clearly that point of view was wrong when it came to the issue of oversight of the Federal Reserve. In fact, that’s exactly what was said by some in 2008 (and is still being said by some in 2012): “Monetary policy is too technical and boring to be worthy of discussion in a presidential primary.”

Some of the Republican field now seems to recognize the importance of the issue. Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney claimed during the debate that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s monetary policy was hurting the economy and said that he would have no place in their administration (Newt went as far as to say that he would fire Bernanke tomorrow, but unfortunately for Newt, the Chairman can only be removed “for cause” and as bad as Bernanke’s policy decisions have been, it’s highly unlikely that they would constitute good cause). It should be clear why candidates other than Paul are finally paying attention to monetary policy and the Fed: the base of the party cares about the issue. Granted, they have only decided to pay attention to it now that Paul has pushed it to the forefront, but, ultimately, I think the Congressman would be pleased that the issue is being discussed even if he doesn’t get the credit for drawing attention to it.

I say all that to say this: if Ron Paul had listened to the conventional wisdom that said “shut up and sit down” when it comes to monetary policy and the Fed, then the virtually unchecked and destructive power that the Fed wields over our money would still be a non-issue for most people. The Republican establishment should be thanking Ron Paul for sticking to his guns and daring to “bore” people with talk of monetary policy. He kept talking about it despite the fact that no one, at the time, seemed to care about the issue.

Turning back to the issue of the drug war, I think the same rationale applies. It’s not enough to say “the base doesn’t want to hear about it.” There are some things that the base doesn’t want to hear about because, frankly, they are uninformed. Having been a conservative Republican in the past, I can say with some degree of confidence that significant portions of the Republican base have not seriously considered that the war on drugs has been wrong from the start. They are uninformed on the issue (as I was) and it is primarily for that reason that they don’t want to hear about it now. They choose to remain uninformed because they are presently uninformed. Put simply, this is circular reasoning at its worst.

I suppose it should come as little surprise, then, that anyone who even suggests that drug policy requires some major adjustments is either a crank, a utopian with his head in the clouds, or (for those who seem unable to avoid ad hominem attacks) a pot head. Dismissing the issue is a mistake and I intend to discuss it at greater lengths in future posts.

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