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The Consequences of Prohibition

Immigration, Civil Liberties and the Drug War

by SHELDON RICHMAN

Arizona’s horrid law empowering cops to demand that people show their “papers” when suspected of being in the country without government permission holds an important lesson for both so-called progressives and conservatives. It’s a lesson about a seemingly separate issue: drugs.

Concern about illegal immigrants along the Mexican border would undoubtedly diminish if the “war on drugs” ended. (It’s not really a war on drugs; it’s a war on manufacturers, merchants, and consumers of certain drugs.) Drug prohibition in Mexico and the United States has not made the drug trade disappear. It merely turned the trade over to violent gangs. That is how prohibition always works. By definition, black markets are illegal, which means people with grievances can’t sue or call the police. They take “justice” into their own hands. The ensuing violence inevitably injures and kills innocent bystanders. If the violence is perpetrated by Mexicans and spills over the border, or if it drives villagers to seek safety in United States, the affected American communities will be tempted to blame foreigners, particularly illegal aliens.

Ending prohibition would bring the drug trade into normal commerce and under the control of social mores similar to those that govern alcohol. Just as we don’t have turf wars and other violence surrounding the liquor and tobacco industries, we would not see it in a legal drug industry.

That in itself would defuse much of the animosity toward Hispanic immigrants.

Moreover, ending the black market would shrink drug profits, which are now used to buy sophisticated weapons for drug gangs.

Now let’s tie the drug issue back to progressives and conservatives.

Progressives portray themselves as sympathetic to immigrants, legal or otherwise, although there is a group that thinks the competition with American workers is unfair. Progressives also regard themselves as civil libertarians and therefore are not happy with the Arizona authoritarian law. (Aside: If they are upset with that law, why do most progressives give Barack Obama a pass on his Cheneyesque policies regarding enemy combatants, indefinite detention, and assassination?)

But if progressives are so concerned about civil liberties, why are they not attacking the war on drugs? Not only does prohibition violate the civil liberties (not to mention property rights) of every legal resident; it also foments hostility to and suspicion of illegals. That hostility in turn leads to policies that erode everyone’s civil liberties. It’s not only immigrants who will have to carry papers in Arizona. Anyone likely to be questioned (read: anyone with brown skin) will have to carry an ID if he wants to ensure he will not be detained.

What about conservatives? Years ago they might have been counted on to protest an ID requirement. Now they seem to have no problem with a state requirement that one produce papers on demand. Rush Limbaugh says that Democrats oppose the Arizona law because having to show an ID will make it hard for them to stuff the ballot box with illegal votes. Are we to infer that Limbaugh (who speaks for many conservatives) therefore favors empowering the police to demand an ID on the mere suspicion that someone is in America without government permission?

That’s not the only problem for conservatives. They repeatedly raise alarms about the threat to gun owners, but they stubbornly refuse to see the connection between the war on guns and the war on drugs. As noted, the black market spawns well-armed drug gangs. Police have complained that they are outgunned by these gangs. This in turn has fueled the anti-gun movement. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that one way to combat the Mexican drug violence is to crack down on the flow of guns from the United States into Mexico. We know what such a policy would mean.

Progressives and conservatives, wake up! The war on drugs undermines civil liberties and the rights of peaceful gun owners, not to mention the freedom of Hispanics to move freely. If you mean it when you say you care about freedom, you will demand a halt to drug prohibition. Your own proclaimed values are at stake.

SHELDON RICHMAN is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) and editor of The Freeman magazine.

 

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