The lessons of history are never quite definitive. History repeats itself, but not exactly, and the trick is to know where the differences come in. Nevertheless, in the case of drug abuse and its control we have as good a lesson and as close an analogy as history ever provides—Prohibition. Unfortunately, our politicians have no historical memory, or perhaps the trouble is that memory serves reason and not appetite and hence is of no use to politicians. In any case, we have now reached the point where Prohibition was about 1930. What had begun as a misguided moral crusade in which many Americans had vast emotional investment had devolved into a scandal of hypocrisy, violence, and corruption. Sensible people knew all along that this was inevitable and that the problem should have been left where it could have been rationally dealt with. It should have been left to the states.

There are, of course, weightier arguments for the prohibition of most drugs than there ever were for alcohol. Alcohol was traditional and ineradicable, whereas drugs are relatively new or foreign and could have been stopped if vigorous and effective action had been taken early enough. It is too late for that now. A considerable portion of our population is beyond the pale, and it is useless to pretend that they will adhere to standards of behavior that have no meaning for them.

If we were to tackle the problem of drugs as a law enforcement problem, we might make some headway. But this has not happened, nor will it. Listen carefully to what the politicians of both parties are saying, and you will hear that for them, drugs are not a law enforcement problem, they are a welfare problem. People who buy and use illegal substances are not lawbreakers who ought to be punished. They are just another set of unfortunate victims of society who have to be saved by the government. If that’s the case, how can we punish the users? Instead we blame the pushers and get tough with foreign exporters.

There is something ludicrous and contemptible about a powerful country blaming paltry neighbors for the misbehavior of its own citizens. It is as if the Bolivians had, like the British in China in the early 19th century, invaded California and forced us to buy the stuff. A little history and common sense would lead any person capable of reason and honesty to believe that given the nature of Latin American countries, it is childish to blame a poor country for selling its best product where there is a demand for it.

It doesn’t help that the politicians who are now outraged that a tinpot dictator in Panama has been acting as a drug profiteer are exactly the same people who turned over the Canal to our noble Panamanian allies. Or that the people who are so exercised about the inability of the federal government to interdict boatloads of drugs from crossing the border are exactly the same people who are unconcerned that the government is also incapable of the much easier and more vital task of protecting the border from millions after millions of illegal aliens.

The latest fad is advocating a federal death penalty for drug pushers. This is, in fact, either hysteria or a sham. As far as I know there are no documented cases of drug pushers actually holding people down, forcing them to pay for the stuff and then ingest it. But in my state there is in prison a man who kidnapped an innocent young woman from a shopping center parking lot and subjected her to rape, torture, and murder. After two immensely elaborate trials, in the first of which the jury issued a death penalty, he is now serving a life sentence, which means 30 years. The reason this creature (and thousands like him) has not been executed is that the Supreme Court has contorted the process surrounding a capital verdict into an insane game that defies every tenet of law, reason, justice, and common sense. The death penalty for drug pushers? Maybe, but first let’s return to the good old English common law of capital punishment for murder, rape, arson, treason, and first degree burglary, all crimes that damage the innocent irrevocably. Otherwise where is the logic in employing the death penalty to rescue us from evil profiteers and foreigners who have the effrontery to sell some of our citizens something they want?

I have no objection, in principle, to laws against sin. Even if they are not enforced they are often necessary or useful supports of society, for there certainly does exist an essential something known as public morality, even though a good proportion of Americans are now too much materialists to recognize it. I do not believe that liberty means anybody can do anything. But I am convinced that given the real world that exists now, the healthy and the conservative solution to the drug problem might well be a little laissez-faire. I am aware of the destructiveness of drugs and of the dangers of decriminalization. But I am also inclined to think that probably our best hope is to try it.

If I am certain of one thing, it is that the political and media fury now underway against drugs will never accomplish anything except to spend money. It is conservative wisdom which tells us that some things will always be with us and may as well be confined within bounds and left alone. It is liberal progressivism that tells us we have to save everyone from himself, whether he wants to be saved or not. Our cultural landscape is littered with the wreck and ruin of failed progressivism. Why not try for once getting the federal government and the liberal intellectual class and the pork-barrellers out of the way and allow the healthy forces of state law and community opinion to work?

The removal of the ban of law from drugs would at once undermine the huge profits and thus remove all the impetus and auxiliary criminality from the trade. There is evidence that the end of Prohibition was marked by a decline in the abuse of alcohol. It certainly put a dent in organized crime and cynical scofflawing and the corruption of public officials.

One of the many evils of Prohibition is that it accustomed our society to think of coercion by the federal government as a solution to every problem. The great destructive experiment was ended by turning the matter back to the states, where it should have been all along. Why not try that in our present situation? What have we got to lose? Many states would prohibit most drugs. Others would regulate them closely. Surely all would vigorously prohibit their sale to minors, and with reduced responsibilities they might, in fact, be able to do this job much more effectively than at present. And, of course, all would continue to educate on the evils of drug use, though there is not the least reason to think this does any good where direct personal experience does not work.

The supplies could be regulated, like alcohol, and taxed. We would have to be determined, of course, to punish people who committed crimes while under the influence of drugs, not for taking drugs, but for the crimes they commit. It is just possible that we might achieve an amelioration of the situation as great as can be hoped in an imperfect world. If not, one of the many virtues of states’ rights is that it allows for learning and change and adaptation that the federal lummox has never been capable of. Possibly after a while our main “drug problem” will be to prevent the liberals in Congress and the courts from making the habit into an inalienable right and subsidizing it.