(CNN) – In 2002, I became aware of a woman who had already served more than six years of a 25-year prison sentence. Her crime? She was addicted to codeine, and she had fraudulently written herself more than 100 prescriptions for Tylenol III.
It seemed to me that this woman had already served far too much time in prison — in fact, more than a person would likely serve if convicted of second-degree murder — so I used my authority as governor of New Mexico to release her.
This sort of real-life example might have been difficult to envision 40 years ago, when President Richard Nixon publicly declared his intention to wage “a new, all-out offensive” against drugs. Back then, many Americans believed that tougher enforcement of drug laws would put an end to drug abuse in the United States once and for all.
But some, even within his own party, thought Nixon was going too far by involving the federal government in personal, private behavior. Raymond Shafer, for example, was the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and Nixon’s choice to lead his handpicked National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. Composed almost entirely of anti-drug conservatives, this commission was expected to issue a report supporting Nixon’s new policies.
However, that isn’t what happened. When the commission released its report in 1972, it recommended, in particular, against the criminalization of marijuana, arguing as follows: “The criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use… the actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion of the law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.”
This report received little media attention, and unfortunately, it had no impact on public policy. By the mid-1980s, virtually 100% of elected politicians from both parties supported the war on drugs in its entirety. Intellectual arguments against prohibition, however, did not die with the Shafer Commission.
William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman, two of the most respected conservative intellectuals of the late 20th century, were among the drug war’s high-profile critics. These great thinkers did not argue that recreational drug use should be celebrated — far from it! Instead, they argued that the prohibition of drugs was causing far greater harm to society than drug abuse itself. And they were right.