Buckley, the scion of a wealthy Connecticut family, came to public prominence with the 1951 publication of "God and Man at Yale," a searing critique of what he saw as agnostic and collectivist tendencies among the faculty and curriculum of his alma mater. In 1955, he founded the National Review, the magazine that became the leading voice of post-war American conservatism and helped lead to the conservative renaissance that resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
While Buckley spent much of his career fighting for main-line conservative causes like smaller government, he also used the National Review and his decades-long stint as the host of PBS' "Firing Line" to advance his views in favor of the legalization of drugs. Along with figures like Milton Friedman and George Schulz, Buckley was among the first conservatives to adopt an overtly pro-legalization position.
Writing in the National Review in 1996, Buckley made the case for legalization:
"A conservative should evaluate the practicality of a legal constriction, as for instance in those states whose statute books continue to outlaw sodomy, which interdiction is unenforceable, making the law nothing more than print-on-paper. I came to the conclusion that the so-called war against drugs was not working, that it would not work absent a change in the structure of the civil rights to which we are accustomed and to which we cling as a valuable part of our patrimony. And that therefore if that war against drugs is not working, we should look into what effects the war has, a canvass of the casualties consequent on its failure to work."
In that same article, Buckley expressed abhorrence at the degree to which drug war zealotry infected the criminal justice system:
"I have not spoken of the cost to our society of the astonishing legal weapons available now to policemen and prosecutors; of the penalty of forfeiture of one's home and property for violation of laws which, though designed to advance the war against drugs, could legally be used -- I am told by learned counsel -- as penalties for the neglect of one's pets. I leave it at this, that it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana. I would hope that the good offices of your vital profession would mobilize at least to protest such excesses of wartime zeal, the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre. And perhaps proceed to recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors."
Buckley's erudition, extensive vocabulary, and famously darting tongue, as well as his life-long commitment to conservative principles made him an iconic figure of the late 20th Century. His principled embrace of drug legalization made it all the easier for other conservatives to follow in his footsteps. Hopefully more will follow.