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Shepardson '22: The war on drugs ignores history and reality

The liberal sentiment of the Enlightenment, one lauding the value of individual autonomy and choice, has underpinned the American experiment. Thomas Jefferson described blind adherence to the law as “the tyrant’s will,” while endorsing the right of Americans to engage in “their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” The ever-eloquent Frederick Douglass viewed this philosophy as one comprised of “saving principles” which the American people should “stand by… in all places, against all foes and at whatever cost,” even if the men who initially created them were plagued with “hypocrisy” and gross imperfections.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the freedom Douglass praised with such adoration never quite stuck in the minds of American politicians — as the authoritarian bent of our criminal justice system and the widely embraced war on drugs demonstrate. Even in 2020, mainstream voices on the left and right have both taken socially conservative stances on activities like vaping and marijuana use, while advocacy for decriminalization of stronger drugs is still widely considered taboo. Those who seek to ban either category of substances wrongly assume that the government is entitled to some rightful mandate over the bodies of the citizenry. Both Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, for example, have convinced themselves that the people must be saved from vaping. Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden clings to the mythology of arguments against marijuana as if they were gospel, further solidifying his role as one of the core architects of modern drug laws. Keep in mind that the negative consequences of drug bans are so obvious that even Trump appears to understand them, and if today’s blossoming prohibitionists do as well, they simply don’t care so long as they can rally a sufficiently large horde of boomers to storm the polls in November.

Nevertheless, I think that young Americans are capable of a more nuanced approach. As we enter into a new election year, let us not forget the catastrophe that was the Eighteenth Amendment. In 1920, anti-alcohol propagandists made similar claims to today’s drug crusaders: These voices feared that the presence of drugs inherently raised crime rates, deteriorated the health of the American public and tore apart families. However, we know that prohibition itself causes these phenomena, for the principles of supply and demand do not magically vanish just because the State has decided that they should. If people want to purchase a good and cannot obtain it from a legal vendor, a black market forms to serve that purpose. While prohibition did reduce American alcohol consumption by 30 percent, this outcome was actually damaging to the moral vision of the prohibitionists. Those who were deterred from consuming alcohol simply moved on to harder substances like opium and cocaine to offset the newly prohibitive cost of their former drug of choice. Efficacy aside, black markets lack a framework for peacefully settling transactional disputes; some scholars argue that this caused the United States homicide rate to nearly double between 1920 and 1933. This rate then began to fall immediately after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. With respect to the public health toll of the alcohol ban, illicit bulk manufacturing also resulted in a greater potency of the product, and American deaths from alcohol poisoning quadrupled a mere five years into prohibition. These results show that prohibition in the 1920s was an unequivocal failure.

Today our government continues its egregious policy of policing American drug use. Half of the federal prison population in 2015 comprised drug offenders alone. These are citizens who will be forced to live out the remainder of their lives with a felony record simply because they consumed or possessed a substance that happened to frighten lawmakers decades ago. This system is needlessly punitive, and our drug laws harbor severe economic consequences for those who become its victims: few employers are willing to hire ex-offenders, about 1,000 students are denied financial aid every year due to criminal drug records and U.S. taxpayers foot a bill of over $51 billion annually in order to fund the drug war.

Bias in application of the law makes this situation even more detestable, as Black and Hispanic Americans are significantly more likely than whites to be incarcerated (and to receive harsher sentences) for drug offenses despite similar rates of substance abuse across these populations. Given that individuals with felony records do not automatically have their voting rights restored in eleven states, the criminalization of drug use will continue to perpetuate mass disenfranchisement of minorities, in addition to preventing such Americans from serving on juries. It should be noted that a felony conviction also prevents someone from exercising their right to own firearms, and racial disparities in drug sentencing are thus unduly stripping away freedoms from peaceful people who have had no evidence of a violent history on their record.

I would like to leave my fellow students with a bit of a plea: when next contemplating how the government can be used to solve a problem, be more thorough in examining what consequences could result from your imagined law. After all, that law will be administered by people who are not saints, characterized by their own biases, prejudices and fanciful interpretations of your words that may all combine to produce something which violates your original intentions. Our national drug policy is a perfect example of how wishful thinking can ruin lives. Even though I don’t personally seek to glorify drug use, goals of preventing overdoses or improving public health mean nothing when the proposed “solutions” involve damning people to eternal poverty and ripping them away from their kids to waste away in a jail cell.

So long as you do not harm the body or property of another human being, the government should be provided no authority to revoke your rights or control what lifestyle you wish to pursue. Certainly, we cannot redirect our disdain for the negative consequences of drug addiction toward restricting the use of products like vapes and pot (i.e. comparatively benign alternatives to more dangerous substances), and ignorantly expect that creating new classes of people to incarcerate will somehow establish a utopian America. Drug legalization is the way of the future, and as such, addiction should be met with compassion rather than the destruction of hope and human dignity.

Adam Shepardson can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to



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