Libertarians for the Drug War?

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Kyle Jaeger, in a Marijuana Moment article last week discussing answers to a drug war question from a March Cato Institute poll, suggests that a substantial percentage of libertarians, even higher than among liberals, support continuing the drug war. Yet, when you look at the poll question at issue, a much different alternative interpretation becomes evident.

Here is how Jaeger presents his analysis of self-identified libertarians’ answer to the poll question:

Interestingly, people who self-identify as libertarian were ten percentage points less likely to support decriminalization (59 percent) than Democrats, despite the hands-off policy fitting squarely within a libertarian ideology. Those most aligned with Cato Institute’s libertarian perspective are even less embracive of lifting criminal penalties for drug offenses than are respondents who identified themselves as very liberal, with 75 percent of that group in favor.

Here is the drug war poll question (question number 45 in the poll):

Would you favor or oppose re-categorizing drug offenses from felonies to civil offenses, meaning they would be treated like minor traffic violations rather than crimes?

Libertarians support eliminating prohibition — adopting a truly hands-off policy. In contrast, the poll question’ proposal that Jaeger calls supportive of a “hands-off policy fitting squarely within a libertarian ideology” calls for treating drug offenses as “civil offenses, meaning they would be treated like minor traffic violations.”

Presented in a poll with this drug war roll back option that falls far short of the libertarian approach, many libertarians would react negatively. “I don’t want to just moderate prohibition,” many would think, “I want to end prohibition.”

It does not follow that self-identified libertarians responding negatively to the poll question, as Jaeger wrote, do not support “lifting criminal penalties for drug offenses.” Instead, they likely responded negatively because they think the question’s proposed legal change that keeps prohibition in place does not go far enough.


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