Thursday, May 19, 2005

Dawn of the Drug War

A question I posed in an earlier post generated some comments from interested readers. How, I wondered, was the Federal government able to outlaw such drugs as marijuana by an Act of Congress, as opposed to a Constitutional Amendment? Presumably the 18th Amendment was the only way the government could outlaw alcohol.

Apparently, it was FDR's fault. His court packing efforts and ensuing public debate had intimidated the judges just enough to make them question their strict constructions. They allowed the National Firearms Act of 1934 to stand when it came up for review in 1937. This law was based on the constitutional prerogative of Congress to regulate interstate trade. Drug laws were modeled on its provisions. An extensive article from the Scientific American (July 1991) describes the real beginning of the Federal War on Drugs:

... As the Great Depression of the 1930s settled over America, the immigrants [from Mexico] became an unwelcome minority linked with violence and with growing and smoking marijuana. Western states pressured the federal government to control marijuana use. The first official response was to urge adoption of a uniform state antinarcotics law. Then a new approach became feasible in 1937, when the Supreme Court upheld the National Firearms Act. This act prohibited the transfer of machine guns between private citizens without purchase of a transfer tax stamp-and the government would not issue the necessary stamp. Prohibition was implemented through the taxing power of the federal government.

Within a month of the Supreme Court's decision, the Treasury Department testified before Congress for a bill to establish a marijuana transfer tax. The bill became law, and until the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Act of 1970, marijuana was legally controlled through a transfer tax for which no stamps or licenses were available to private citizens. ...

Among other things, the article proposes that there is a social taboo cycle associated with the use of recreational drugs that fluctuates over the generations -- from curiosity and tolerance to fear and over-reaction. My opinion of this matter is that we have been and still are caught in a huge counterproductive social trap. Drug use and corruption are only encouraged by the current authoritarian approach.

We should do everything we can to control and discourage use of harmful drugs without actually outlawing them. First of all we should be honest about the effects. Americans have the right to make their own choices based on a balanced assessment of the facts.

However, sale and distribution should be reserved to the Federal Government, no bans permitted, but with a strict pricing program deployed with an explicit purpose -- to eliminate the black market. Once the black market is expunged, prices should be adjusted to help pay for the social costs associated with each drug. A high "sin tax" would have more effect at controlling the use, and provide more benefit to society, than any amount of enforcement and incarceration. Providing drugs to minors could still be penalized, in proportion to the actual danger associated with the specific drug, just as it is today with alcohol.

The article cited is one of many carefully researched articles about drugs on the same site. Also, check out M.Simon's anti-prohibition pieces at Power and Control.

See also my previous posts on the subject:

5/19/2005 4:24 PM

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