Social Liberalism and the Drug War



In the 1990s, I read an interview with a rock star optimistic about the country’s direction. He thought President Clinton’s admission to having tried marijuana was a good sign. America was becoming more socially liberal. The new generation was in charge. And as one consequence, maybe the disastrous war on drugs would end.

Not only did Clinton continue waging the drug war as rigorously as his predecessor. He stepped it up in Latin America and began the crackdowns on California’s medical marijuana dispensaries.

I believe the country has become more socially liberal since then. We have good reason to conclude that the last three presidents in a row have used illicit drugs, and people seem less concerned about this than they would have before. Other social mores have seemed to move in a “liberal” direction.

Politicians at the Democratic National Convention this week have voiced more socially liberal views on gay marriage and gays in the military than would have been welcome even four years ago, back when Obama opposed gay marriage, to say nothing of twelve years ago, when the Democratic president had been the one to sign Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

To advertise actor Kal Penn’s involvement with the convention, the Democrats produced a commercial featuring Obama, Penn, and John Cho, Penn’s co-star from the Harold and Kumar stoner comedies. The ad capitalized on the humor of these cannabis-themed films quite effectively. It surely aimed at the youth vote, but also showed that the times are a-changin’. It is difficult to imagine Jimmy Carter doing an ad with Cheech and Chong. Apparently we have seen a shift toward social liberalism on the issue of pot.

At the convention last night, Penn talked up Obama’s agenda in a most favorable light, scoring socially liberal points regarding gays and immigrants. He spoke elsewhere in defense of Obama’s drug policy, getting the facts totally wrong.

Contrary to Penn’s apologetics, not only has the war on marijuana and other drugs continued; it has escalated. Indeed, Obama perhaps enjoys the distinction as being both the president with the most richly documented youth of exuberant illegal drug experimentation and the most energetic drug warrior president in American history. He has ramped up the crackdowns on medical marijuana dispensaries by as much as a factor of eight over Bush. There are more Americans in prison for drugs than ever before. Tens of thousands of Mexicans have died in the border violence during Obama’s term, all so the U.S. government could continue to impose its drug policy on the continent. Obama has signed off on increased drug enforcement spending and sent the Marines to Guatemala on another pointless interdiction mission.

On the drug war, a massive assault on personal liberty and human life, as well as on most other civil liberties issues—immigration, detention policy, presidential power concerning war captives, the militarization of law enforcement, attacks on whistleblowers—Obama has if anything been worse than his more socially conservative predecessor.

I frequently favor what is called social liberalism. But if the Obama and Clinton administrations have shown anything about social liberalism, it is that it is at best an insufficient bulwark of civil and personal liberty. Even if it helped in overthrowing alcohol prohibition, it has so far done little to stem the greater harms caused by drug prohibition. Even if it eventually softens the public into tolerating legal weed, it will fail to lead people to the principled reasons to oppose the war on other drugs and similar assaults on self-ownership. Surely if social liberalism can be reconciled with a powerful and expansive government, it can easily be reconciled with Big Brother.

A socially liberal culture might protect some freedoms, but it actually fails far more often than is usually assumed in stopping the persecution of the “other,” reducing injustice against minorities, shielding the individual against institutional oppression, or defending free thought, tolerance, and bodily freedom. Social liberals, particularly the social democrats supporting Obama, might at times advance a more multicultural, egalitarian, feminist, or politically correct police state than what their partisan opponents have in mind. But a socially liberal president is perfectly capable of smashing lives and liberties in the most backwards of crusades, even against something that was once his own beloved pastime. It might seem very hypocritical, but the socially liberal state typically is.

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