On Oct. 26, President Donald Trump declared opioid abuse a public health emergency and promised to redirect federal resources to the problem. In his speech announcing yet another war on drugs, Trump told a story about his brother Fred’s addiction to a completely legal substance: alcohol. We all know how disastrous alcohol prohibition was in the early 20th century, so could a new government battle against opioids be any more successful?
“Of course not,” said Libertarian National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark. “Drug wars have been failing for over 100 years. The role of government is to deal with people who hurt other people, steal from them, or violate agreements. That’s it. Futile attempts to prevent people from harming themselves with drugs don’t fall under that umbrella.”
According to drug abuse historian David Courtwright of the University of North Florida, there were an estimated 300,000 opioid addicts at the peak of addiction in the 19th century, representing an addiction rate of 0.48 percent of the population.
“This is a stunningly low percentage for a time when there were essentially no drug laws,” Sarwark said. “Morphine, opium, marijuana, cocaine, laudanum, and other currently illegal drugs were freely available, with or without prescription and in many unregulated patent medicines. Today, according to the rehabilitation specialists at Addictions.com, there are 12 million illegal users of opioids. That’s 3.9 percent of today’s population — an eightfold increase.”
Statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a small but stable correlation between opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths from any opioid, legal or illegal, between 2006 and 2010 — roughly one death per 13,000 prescriptions. In 2010, federal pressure caused a decrease in legal opioid prescriptions. The correlation between opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths turned sharply negative. Fewer legal prescriptions led to more overdose deaths.
“Reducing the supply of legal prescriptions for opioids is pushing people into black market heroin/fentanyl abuse,” pointed out Dr. Jeffrey A. Singer, a Phoenix surgeon and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “The no. 1 cause of drug deaths is drug prohibition. We need to change our focus to harm reduction. We need to change from a war on drugs to a war on drug deaths.”
Modern drug wars began in 1908, when President Teddy Roosevelt appointed the nation’s first opium commissioner. The 19th century was a “dope-fiend’s paradise,” explained “The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs.” There were no drug laws in the United States.
In the 20th century, government officials began to stoke racist fears in order to sway public opinion in favor of drug restrictions.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the USA, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers,” said Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. “Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” That was one of Anslinger’s less racist pronouncements.
It’s no coincidence that the drug war would go on to devastate African-American communities throughout the late 20th century.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” said former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Only the Libertarian Party has the courage to abstain from playing politics with the fear of drugs. Since its founding in 1971, the Libertarian Party has called for the repeal of all counterproductive drug laws — and all drug laws are counterproductive.