Southern Views

Rep. Lamar Smith (R, Texas)U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith deserves recognition for achieving something that many observers would have thought impossible. He found a way to make the War on Drugs an even greater public policy disaster. On October 10th, the House Judiciary Committee that he chairs voted final passage of a bill amending the Controlled Substances Act to make U.S. drug prohibition prosecution authority universal. If adopted into law by Congress, his Drug Trafficking Safe Harbor Elimination Act of 2011 would make anyone within the borders of the U.S. who “aids or abets” anyone outside the borders of the U.S. in committing acts involving the many substances prohibited and/or heavily regulated by the underlying law that would be illegal if committed within the borders of the U.S. in violation as a conspirator. The range of absurd prosecutions that would be made possible is outlined in a recent piece by Radley Balko in Huffington Post.

So who voted for this sweeping new assertion of power to regulate the personal behavior of Americans? All fifteen Republicans on the Judiciary Committee present voted for the bill, including such supposed champions of individual liberty as Ted Poe and Mike Pence. Back on March 10, 2010, for example, Poe was ranting that the “American people don’t desire more oppressive, intrusive government” and they want “to control their own lives.” And back on July 2, 2010 Pence was effusing that Americans, “live and breathe the cause of liberty. Freedom is the very core of an American spirit that is alive and well today.” But that was then and this is now.

The other seven Republicans on the committee didn’t bother to show up for the vote, including none other than Louis Gohmert. Perhaps he was off on crusade in the Middle East. All but two of the sixteen Democrats on the committee managed to put in an appearance, with five of them actually voting FOR passage. A minority of Democrats can often be found to support any bad idea embraced by all Republicans.

What explains this push to expand the War on Drugs? That Rep. Smith is a Christian Scientist and thus disapproves of drugs both medicinal and recreational might explain his vote but what of the others? Their curious beliefs tend to be more political than religious in nature.

For a more universal explanation it might make sense to look at what conservatives do when faced with an unmistakably unwinnable war that poses no existential threat to the nation. The rational response in such circumstances is to figure out how to disengage from the conflict with as few casualties as possible. That is what the Nixon administration ought to have done with the War in Vietnam in 1969. Instead, Nixon and Kissinger intensified the violence in Vietnam and widened the war with a brief invasion and massive, sustained aerial bombardment of neighboring Cambodia. At a staggering cost in human life they managed merely to forestall inevitable defeat.

Rep. Smith’s bill to widen the War on Drugs looks like an effort to forestall inevitable defeat. After all, no war has ever been as unwinnable as the War on Drugs. Tens of millions of Americans continue to use illicit drugs despite strenuous and increasingly militarized coercion by the state. Nor have the consequences of losing a war ever been as potentially positive. Ending drug prohibition would free up scarce government revenues for the provision of useful services such as education, health care, or even fighting violent and property crime.

Drug prohibitionists don’t have to look far for the evidence that their defeat is inevitable. Decriminalization of cannabis in many liberal democracies or even complete legalization of all drugs as in Portugal is the general direction of drug policy. If it becomes law, the Drug Trafficking Safe Harbor Elimination Act of 2011 might well be one of the last hurrahs of American drug prohibition. The pity in all this that Americans didn’t put an end to this nonsense decades ago.

John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.