Rushing to See the Bright Side

The news that conservative radio megatalker Rush Limbaugh has announced that he is addicted to prescription painkillers and is seeking treatment – apparently not for the first time – could have a significant and beneficial impact on the worldwide struggle against terror. The fact that almost all conservative commentators have rushed to express support for Mr. Limbaugh, to hope that if the addiction can be licked – most seem pretty sure it can – he can come back stronger than ever, reinforces this idea, given a couple of assumptions..

I know that seems a bit of a stretch, but stick with me.


While it has certainly been possible for those searching the archives to find quotes from Mr. Limbaugh to the effect that the only thing wrong with the War on Drugs is that it hasn’t been prosecuted vigorously enough, that not enough people are in jail yet, my own admittedly incomplete impression is that he hasn’t been saying such things very much in recent years. If my impression is accurate, that may coincide with his own struggles with addiction, or it could be that other issues have simply seemed more important to him. Certainly there have been other issues to talk about.

I confess, however, to harboring a fond hope that Rush might have come to understand that the War on Drugs cannot be won through the ongoing arrest and incarceration of users, but had been reluctant to talk about it lest he upset his core listeners. Now he will almost be obligated to talk about it. One may hope, if logic and personal experience have any influence on his opinions, that he will have rather a different take on whether the justice system is the proper institution to deal with the human propensity to seek to alter one’s consciousness and the fact that certain substances have a propensity to create addiction (a handy term generally understood but not all that well defined scientifically if you delve into the literature a bit.

The fact that he has checked himself into a rehabilitation program (that might or might not work) rather than a jail, however, suggests that at some rather deep level he believes that for the individual addict addiction is better served by medical or quasi-medical intervention than by the criminal justice system. Once he’s through with rehab (if any addict really is ever finished), he might well be ready to say in public what so many of us without that kind of platform have been saying for years – that dealing with drugs and their consequences for the people who use them unwisely through criminal law is not only ineffective but counterproductive.


If addiction is not a crime but a medical/psychological problem with moral overtones – and if millions of dittoheads become convinced of this, and eventually have some influence over the politicians they support based on other issues, we could see the beginning of the end of the drug war. That would be a red-letter day for America and a serious blow to the terrorists (and plenty of other ruthless thugs) of this world.

For a long time criticism of the drug war has been viewed, at least in conservative political circles, as more of a “third rail” of American politics than Social Security (which may be losing its status in this respect). I have talked to any number of Republican or conservative politicians who are willing to say privately that they’re not sure the war on drugs (or to be a bit more precise, the war on users of drugs not approved by the government) is a failure that could and perhaps should be abandoned. But they are generally convinced that if they say such things in public their political careers will be ended in short order.

This is curious in a way. In doing the research for my book, Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana, one of the more striking things I found was that grassroots support for the war on drugs was not as strong as one might expect. To be sure, one of the quickest ways to get into an argument with some conservatives or moderates is to suggest that it’s time to give up the government’s war on drugs, but you don’t find as many true believers as used to be the case, and many of the “citizens” groups in favor of intensifying the war on drugs turn out to be subsidized (your tax dollars at work) by the drug warriors rather than genuine stirrings in the grassy grass roots.

When California voters had Proposition 215, which authorizes the medical use of marijuana under state law for people with a recommendation from a licensed physician, the proponents were, not surprisingly, not especially well organized or politically effective until an influx of money came from billionaire George Soros and others. But the opponents of the proposition were, if anything, even less well organized or effective. Virtually the only opposition came from officialdom – from then-Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates in California and from then-drug “czar” Gen. Barry McCaffrey at the national level.

The opponents brought in current and retired elected officials to give press conferences, which tended to get a day’s worth of coverage. But no groups of parents or other “concerned” citizens arose spontaneously and in anger to oppose this “stealth legalization” initiative. Officials tut-tutted and got their day of press coverage – and the people thought about cancer patients, people in chronic pain and others and went ahead and approved the initiative. Since then implementation of the initiative has been spotty at best, often reflecting foot-dragging from law enforcement and other officials. But no popular opposition to the idea of medical marijuana has emerged.

Strikingly, in the recent gubernatorial recall election, promising to implement California’s medical marijuana law and do something (usually vague and non-specific, as is the wont of politicians) to safeguard patients who find marijuana medically efficacious was the only thing the candidates prominent enough to get into the televised debates could agree on. Most national polls show 70-80 percent support for permitting the medical use of marijuana. In every state where the issue has been put to a popular vote it has passed. A Nevada initiative last year to virtually legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose failed, but it got almost 40 percent of the vote.

I’m not necessarily saying that popular support for the war on drugs is a house of cards waiting to be tipped by the next favorable or prominent development. But while most politicians still fear to bring up the issue (even though few who have been punished at the polls), popular skepticism about the war on drugs is at least on the increase.

Could a Rush Limbaugh taking a stand perfectly consonant with limited-government conservatism (read Article I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution to see if the “enumerated powers” include the power for the national government to prohibit certain substances, and remember that it took a Constitutional amendment to prohibit beverage alcohol) and based on his personal experience, much of which he has a gift for communicating, tip the balance? I don’t know, but I can dream.


There’s another argument that friends of liberty would do well to emphasize if the issue makes its way back into the national conversation, and here’s where what seems like a strictly domestic issue begins to have implications for foreign affairs and the threats our leaders perceive as paramount in these times. Ending the war on drugs would be very helpful in defunding the terrorists of the world.

The government has tried to make this connection, but it has done so in a particularly dishonest way, running commercials charging that casual users of illicit drugs fund terrorism directly. There’s a bit of truth to the suggestion, of course – although the government has dropped the campaign and it doesn’t seem to have had much of a persuasive impact. But the truth is that it is the war on drugs that creates the real nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism.

As Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray – who may be running for Senate in California – notes in his excellent book, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It and elsewhere, drug prohibition radically “profitizes the drug trade and makes enormous sums of money available to those skilled in the dark arts of intimidation, bribery, inducing corruption and perpetrating violence. Prohibition creates what is called a “risk premium” that creates conditions in which drugs like cocaine and heroin sell in the United States and other developed countries for prices 20 to 40 times what they would without prohibition.

That means lots of excess money for criminals – and plenty eager to take their places if a few are apprehended – and that can be used for other activities, including violent political activities. Thus drug traffickers and international terrorists, as well as other perpetrators of political violence, share an interest in certain things – large sums of hard-to-trace cash, relatively secure transit routes for contraband and people, hiding places secure from the authorities, and large quantities of weapons. It is logical that terrorists and drug traffickers would hook up, and there’s plenty of evidence that they have.


Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen a couple of years ago did a series on drug laws and terrorism in which he quoted John Thompson of the McKenzie Institute, a Canadian think tank, to the effect that “It used to be that terrorism was funded by nation-states, particularly the old Soviet Union. But as the Soviet Union weakened in the 1980s, more and more insurgent groups, terrorists groups, started to resort to organized criminal activities to pay their bills.” Most of those activities involved drug trafficking.

To be sure, there are still some state sponsors of terrorism, notably North Korea (though it’s an economic basket case), perhaps Syria, and at least indirectly, Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden had an enormous personal fortune, and one presumes that assuming he is still alive he still has access to some of that money. But, says John Thompson, “the big money earner for most of them seems to be narcotics.”

There are people who understand the real connection well. The Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy emphasizes it strongly: “Remember, it is drug prohibition that generates huge profits for these groups. Without prohibition, drug profits would be a small fraction of what they are now.” Common Sense for Drug Policy has also set up a website with numerous links that explain the connections between prohibition and terrorism. In the early 1990s Interpol was warning that terrorist groups and other promulgators of political violence were increasingly using drug trafficking to fund their activities.

The Kosovo Liberation Army was largely funded by heroin trafficking between Istanbul and Europe, and the drug traffickers and insurgents were often indistinguishable, sharing hiding places, secure routes and weapons caches. The ongoing civil war in Colombia has been made much more intense and violent by the drug trafficking that is created by prohibition. Shucks, before 9/11 the United States helped to subsidize the Taliban government in Afghanistan because it had promised to crack down on opium poppy growing (though the amount stored was plenty to keep the trade going).


After the terrorist attacks of September 11 the government made much of reorganizing priorities to fight or deter terrorism. Ending prohibition would not only do much to reduce the amount of money available to terrorists, it would free up thousands of government agents to focus on threats to national security instead of medical marijuana patients. As Jacob Sullum, author of another interesting book, Saying Yes, put it in Reason magazine of December 2001:

“Every dollar spent intercepting drugs is a dollar that could be spent intercepting bombs. Every agent infiltrating a drug cartel is an agent who could be infiltrating a terrorist cell.”

So eliminating prohibition would not only do a great deal (although admittedly not everything) to defund terrorists and dealers in political violence. It would allow more resources to be used to work directly against terrorism. That would do a great deal to reduce the need for military action.

And Rush Limbaugh making the proper logical connections just might be the key to turning the tide against prohibition.

I’m making an assumption here, of course. That is that conservatives (besides Judge Gray and a few others) like Rush Limbaugh and the many people who admire him are capable of learning from experience, making some logical connections, and having courage enough to change their positions in the face of evidence, then publicizing their changes of heart. I’m not asking for too much – am I?

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).