Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 4: The War on Drugs

Perhaps the two most important social issues for the majority of libertarians are the War on Drugs and strict gun control, both of which they (rightfully, in my opinion) oppose. It is thus worth noting that Reagan was extremely un-libertarian on the War on Drugs. (We’ll get to gun control in one of the later posts in this series.) In a publication for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has received funding from the Koch brothers, Gene Healy sums it up thusly: “President Nixon popularized the phrase ‘the war on drugs,’ but Reagan was the first chief executive who really took that metaphor seriously.” On October 14, 1982, the man who had declared that government was not the solution to the problem announced that the government needed to enforce drug prohibition for the sake of national security. Not only did Reagan strongly favor drug prohibition, he also believed that imprisonment as opposed to merely treatment was necessary. Nor did he limit his authoritarian stance to so-called “hard drugs.” When the National Academy of Sciences concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized–a proposal that had been previously endorsed by some members of his own party, such as Jacob Javits and Edward Brooke–Reagan balked at the idea. He signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This legislation established mandatory minimum sentences for both possessing and selling drugs. For example, possessing one kilo of heroin or five kilos of cocaine carried a minimum penalty of ten years in prison.

In an article for The Atlantic, journalist Eric Schlosser explained that, “The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act marked a profound shift not only in America’s drug-control policy but also in the workings of its criminal-justice system. The bill greatly increased the penalties for federal drug offenses. More important, it established mandatory-minimum sentences, transferring power from federal judges to prosecutors. The mandatory minimums were based not on an individual’s role in a crime but on the quantity of drugs involved. Judges in such cases could no longer reduce a prison term out of mercy or compassion. Prosecutors were given the authority to decide whether a mandatory-minimum sentence applied.” Additionally, “A public-health approach to drug control was replaced by an emphasis on law enforcement. Drug abuse was no longer considered a form of illness; all drug use was deemed immoral, and punishing drug offenders was thought to be more important than getting them off drugs.” And while the bill included laudable efforts to ban the sale of drugs to minors, the term “minor” was implausibly defined as 21 and under the same way it was with Reagan’s alcohol legislation. All of this played a key role in the federal prison population increasing nearly eight-fold between 1980 and 2014. Schlosser and other writers, such as Randall Kennedy, have pointed out that many liberal Democrats voted for the legislation, complete with the infamous “crack vs powder” discrepancy that has tacitly favored white drug users over black drug users. Nonetheless, in the House of Representatives, fifteen of the sixteen Congress members to vote against the bill were liberal Democrats, including John Lewis and Barney Frank. Thus, most of the Representatives to take libertarian or semi-libertarian stances on the Drug War were from the Left. In 2000, Joseph McNamara, a Harlem beat cop-turned police chief of first Kansas City, Missouri and then San Jose, California, reflected on Reagan and the War on Drugs. McNamara had crusaded admirably against racism, police brutality, and the War on Drugs, and he speculated that Reagan might have come around to a more libertarian stance on narcotics. Of course, this is theoretically possible, just as it is theoretically possible that Tip O’Neill would have become an advocate for abolishing all public assistance programs. But while I do not want to in any way detract from the great work that McNamara did, there is simply little or nothing in Reagan’s record to indicate that he would have ever soured toward the War on Drugs. On this issue, as with many others, the Gipper found the might of the State to be superior to free choice.

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