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Buckley, Legal Drugs & My Evolving View

By Mark Davis

When William F. Buckley died Feb. 27, I thought a tribute column would be in order. But rather than walk in the footsteps of others who have sung his praises, I decided to do something that genuinely invokes his legacy of lively debate: a hard look at one of the most controversial views he held.

Mr. Buckley was a conservative's conservative, a modern icon of what it means to favor less government, lower taxes and free markets. But at some point in his intellectual journey, he adopted a view that alienated many of his admirers.

He announced his approval of drug legalization.

He asked America to get past the visceral revulsion they may have for the actual ingestion of drugs and settle on the policy issue: Should individual drug use be government's business?

A key difference between libertarians and conservatives is that libertarians don't try to outlaw what they don't like. From hate speech to pornography to bad parenting, the libertarian understands that freedom means some people will do things that the public may find objectionable.

Too often, mainstream conservatism responds by seeking to ban the things that rankle its sensibilities. Liberalism does this as well, when it tells us what mileage our cars must get or what kind of light bulbs we must use.

But conservatives and liberals are right when they observe that the people, through elected government, do have the right to ban things.

We can agree or disagree with such bans, but unless the Constitution precludes it - as with your religion, your speech or, yes, your gun - government can ban anything it chooses.

So to the merits: Do drugs rise to the level of something we have a compelling interest in outlawing?

Of course they do. A stoned public is a shared hazard that is everyone's business. It is not merely a story of some slob rolling a joint in his basement. If the drug user ventures beyond his walls, his impairment could lead to harm or death for others.

But Mr. Buckley would argue: Don't we already have laws for every bad thing people do on drugs? Enforce those laws, and we have an effective disincentive to recreational self-medication.

Or do we? Many users begin a night of drug use without a shred of ill intent, but their judgment becomes so perverted by the effects of their chosen substance that their wisdom and inhibitions vanish, pushing them out the door to pursue any number of sinister pursuits.

Fine, Mr. Buckley would say. Then they have a responsibility not to ingest those substances that they know will lead to bad decisions.

So far, he is winning. But his main reason for opposing the so-called war on drugs is that it has not worked.

I assert that it has, and it works to this very day. When a teenager is offered a handful of pills and says no out of fear of arrest, our drug laws work. When an adult refuses a joint at a party for fear of being busted on the way home, our drug laws work.

Mr. Buckley and other drug-law critics argue that we will never catch all, or even most, of our drug users and sellers. True. But if that is sufficient logic for scrapping the law, let's stop all traffic law enforcement and even CPS investigations. Surely we will never nab every speeder or abusive parent.

At least Mr. Buckley never parroted the dumbest thing the pro-legalization crowd says: "You won't see drug use go up if the laws are relaxed. All the people who want drugs are already using them."

What a crock. Millions of Americans refrain from dabbling in drugs only because they are law-abiding and do not wish to go to jail. Lift those constraints, and you will see new experimentation at every age level.

So does that justify keeping drugs illegal, or is drug use just one of those objectionable things that are the cost of a free society? Heaven knows we allow people to legally drink themselves into oblivion. Is that hypocrisy?

I'd love to deliver a bold, satisfying payoff line that ties a neat bow around the issue, but I have to work on this one. As I do, I hope to honor the discipline that William F. Buckley's example teaches:

Wisdom sometimes means seeking the ideal while realizing that sometimes all we get are flawed choices.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is

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