Barr: “I Was Wrong About the War on Drugs”

For those of you who are concerned about Bob Barr’s position on the war on (some) drugs, maybe this article Barr posted at The Huffington Post will help allay some of your concerns. I am among those who would like the congressman to speak out more forcefully on this subject as I have seen him miss opportunities to explain why libertarians oppose the war on (some) drugs.

Barr writes:

For years, I served as a federal prosecutor and member of the House of Representatives defending the federal pursuit of the drug prohibition.

Today, I can reflect on my efforts and see no progress in stopping the widespread use of drugs. I’ll even argue that America’s drug problem is larger today than it was when Richard Nixon first coined the phrase, “War on Drugs,” in 1972.

America’s drug problem is only compounded by the vast amounts of money directed at this ongoing battle. In 2005, more than $12 billion dollars was spent on federal drug enforcement efforts while another $30 billion was spent to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders.

The result of spending all of those taxpayer’s dollars? We now have a huge incarceration tab for non-violent drug offenders and, at most, a 30% interception rate of hard drugs. We are also now plagued with the meth labs that are popping up like poisonous mushrooms across the country.

Call me naive, but I think Mr. Barr gets it. The fact that Mr. Barr understands that so many tax dollars are being wasted on incarcerating non-violent drug offenders is evidence of this. According to the Bureau of Prisons, drug offenses account for 52.8% of all criminal offenses. How many of these are non-violent offenders and how many of the violent crimes would be dramatically reduced if drugs were legalized or decriminalized? With 1 in every 100 adults behind bars in the “land of the free,” America incarcerates more people than any country in the world. This needs to change.

However, because our government is divided into three separate branches, there is only so much a president could do in ending the war on (some) drugs. I can think of only three ways a Barr Administration could impact the war on (some) drugs at the federal level*:

1. Pardon all non-violent drug offenders en masse. This would have the effect of limiting law enforcement to going after violent drug offenders as any new offenders would be affected by the mass pardon. This is a question I asked Mr. Barr at the post debate press conference; you can listen to his answer here.

2. Veto any bill which funds the war on (some) drugs.

3. Direct the Justice Department, the DEA, and all other federal agencies not to enforce the existing federal drug laws. Not every law can be enforced; it’s the executive branch’s role to enforce the law. Rather than enforce unconstitutional, draconian drug laws the executive can direct all agencies to focus on keeping the American people safe from anyone who violates the individual’s rights of life, liberty, and property through force or fraud.

As Brad pointed out with some concern, Barr mentioned something about the “current” war on (some) drugs was a failure when he was a guest on the Colbert Report. Did Mr. Barr really mean the war on (some) drugs needs to be fought “smarter” rather than ended?

Barr continues using the tragedy of WWE wrestler Chris Benoit as an example of how a private organization can combat drug abuse without the help of government:

While it is clear the War on Drugs has been a failure, it is not enough to simply acknowledge that reality. We need to look for solutions that deal with the drug problem without costly and intrusive government agencies, and instead allow for private industry and organizations to put forward solutions that address the real problems.


In the wake of the tragedy, the head of the WWE, Vince McMahon, and its other leaders looked internally to recognize these problems and address them. Although in the two years before Benoit’s death, dozens of wrestlers had been suspended, gone to rehab, or been dismissed under the WWE’s recently adopted “Wellness Program,” the WWE strengthened its drug policy further, re-emphasizing that its policy wasn’t merely a document, but the internal laws of the company that would be enforced.


McMahon didn’t wait for Congress to pass a law or parade his wrestlers in front of congressional committee hearings; he took the lead and assumed responsibility over the health and welfare of the individuals who work for the WWE.

As part of the WWE Wellness Program, wrestlers go through regular drug testing and even cardiovascular testing. The latter identified a previously unknown heart condition for the wrestler “MVP” and he was treated for Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. The government’s War on Drugs wouldn’t have done that.

This is one area where the government can and should combat drug abuse; not by locking people up but by allowing businesses and organizations to set their own policies. This means that an employer should have the ability to discriminate against anyone who they believe would harm his or her business (be it drug abuse, alcohol abuse, smoking, obesity, or whatever). Once again freedom is the answer to the drug problem (in this case, freedom of association).

I have only one major complaint with the Barr campaign remaining regarding the war on (some) drugs. I suspect that someone inside the Barr campaign is reading this. If so, please tell Mr. Barr to express these thoughts to the likes of Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, or anyone else on the Right that brings up the war on (some) drugs question.

*I would have to defer to Doug and other lawyers to evaluate the legalities of these proposals but they seem legitimate to me. Maybe there are other legal tactics a president could use that I haven’t thought of or am unaware of.

  • Doug Mataconis


    Two points.

    1. Glenn Beck might listen to reason — actually his hour-long interview with Barr was pretty good. But don’t expect Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, or the like to be anything other than slavish lapdogs for the GOP.

    2. As for the legality of what Barr proposes, I think most of what he’s talking about is within the powers of the President as head of the Executive Branch. And, the pardon power is sacrosanct and beyond anyone’s review.

  • Stephen Littau

    I should clarify something: the three points are my proposals of what I think he could do as president (though I am confident that he would take these and other actions).

  • Stephen Littau

    I think this is what he means by ending the war on drugs at the federal level.

  • UCrawford


    Actually, Glenn Beck occasionally writes some pretty good articles. He had one today about the housing crunch and why it’s important not to do a bailout. I know he hasn’t got a particularly great reputation among libertarians and he’s certainly put his share of stupid articles out there, but I think that you’re right that he’s more open to reason than most conservative pundits.

  • UCrawford

    Good article, Stephen.

  • Mark

    One other thing that doesn’t get nearly enough mention regarding Barr’s position on the War on Drugs- for the last two years or so, he’s actively been fighting against it by lobbying for the Marijuana Policy Project. Yes, my understanding is that this lobbying is largely limited to medical marijuana issues – but still, the man is actually doing tangible things to weaken or end the WO(S)D rather than just talking about it. This is why the lack of credit he gets on this issue from many libertarian circles infuriates me- except for obviously Steve Kubby (who gave an interview recently expressing support for Barr’s position on the WO(S)D), how many libertarians have taken more concrete action against the WO(s)D than Barr?

  • Stephen Littau

    Thanks U.C.

    I agree Mark. I see nothing wrong with taking an incremental approach and I think Barr’s and Kubby’s efforts are admirable.

    With respect with Glen Beck, the reason I brought his name up is because Barr had a full hour interview with him.

    Beck brought up the war on (some) drugs and Barr brushed it aside. I would have liked for Barr to express what he did in his HP article in the Beck interview.

  • Doug Mataconis


    That’s why I put Glenn Beck in a separate category from hacks like Limbaugh, Hannity, and Levin. He actually thinks before he talks.

  • Alex

    What drugs shouldn’t we be at war with?

  • Stephen Littau

    Alex, adults should be able to consume any substance without the government interfering. Your body belongs to you – not the government.

    The reason I say the war on (some) drugs is because the government is very selective about which drugs are okay and which are not. In some cases, the government wants you or your kids to take drugs. It’s all very hypocritical.

  • Brad Warbiany


    Drugs are a product that are in demand on a worldwide basis. The transaction between a drug dealer and his customer is voluntary. A war on drugs is fundamentally a war on freedom.

    But to follow Bob Barr’s position… We can’t even keep drugs out of PRISONS! Prisons, you know those small secure areas with enormous fences, guarded by men with rifles? If we can’t keep drugs out of prisons, can you simply call it a failure and consider the drug war outright unwinnable?

  • Alex


    “The reason I say the war on (some) drugs is because the government is very selective about which drugs are okay and which are not. In some cases, the government wants you or your kids to take drugs. It’s all very hypocritical.”

    Ah, I understand your argument now. It’s accurate, indeed, given the prevalence of alcohol and tobacco of course.

  • Stephen Littau

    Alex, good point. Do you realize that tobacco kills more people (I mean far more people) than all illicit drugs combined? If the government were serious, tobacco would be illegal rather than subsidized and taxed.

    I go into much more detail about why we should end the war on (some) drugs in the following post:

    I would be very interested in your reaction (the comments are turned off on that post but feel free to make comments on it here)

  • Stephen Littau

    And at least the prohibitionists of that time had the decency to amend the Constitution rather than pretend that prohibition was constitutional.

  • Michael Seebeck

    Barr STILL has not uttered the magic words: “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”

    Until he says that explicitly, all the posturing in the world will not matter.

    It’s no crime to admit a mistake and apologize. But it is a huge crime to not do so when confronted with the obvious.

  • Mark

    Uhh, I’m pretty sure has has admitted the mistake. As for being sorry, I think actually lobbying for marijuana policy reform is more than enough penance. As I pointed out above – how many advocates of ending the drug war actually put their money and time where their mouth is? Unless you are one of them, I think it is really hypocritical to attack Bob Barr for not being “sorry” enough.

  • Rocketman

    I basically feel the same way. Many years ago, I felt as if we should be executing drug users as well as dealers, but over time I realized that the laws punishing drug users (“know your customer” banking laws and the militaration of the police for example) were in reality punishing the rest of us non-users. The only sane thing to do is to begin to dismantle this zero tolerance anti-drug culture that we have. I think that Bob Barr sees the same thing as I do.