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In Memoriam: William F. Buckley, Conservative Supporter of Drug Legalization

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #525)
Politics & Advocacy

William F. Buckley
William F. Buckley, the dean of American conservatism and advocate of drug legalization, died Wednesday at his home in Connecticut. He was 82.

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.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Oughta be able see what buckley saw. I think the only thing stopping politicians from taking this stance is the common misconception of its being soft on crime and therefore a threat to one's re-election chances. I've said it before and I'll say it until it happens. The only thing that will change peoples minds in a massive sweeping manner will be widespread civil disobedience, stuffing corrections and burdening local budgets nationwide. Hit the public where it hurt (pocketbook) and they'll start listening.

Fri, 02/29/2008 - 1:23pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

When bad laws undermine the rule of law itself, in the service of *any* agenda, the rule of law is compromised beyond reckoning. Unfortunately, this is the situation in which our republic finds itself. Buckley was referring to the RICO (Racketeer-influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law; they are based on the bizarre legal theory that things other than human beings and organizations can commit crimes; therefore, they can be locked up (confiscated from their innocent owners). This theory, like the theory that the whole Executive Branch is "unitary" (unchecked by Legislative or Judicial authority), directly undermines the rule of law by placing executive authority beyond the reach of due process.

Thus, we are currently living in extremely deep legal doodoo, and no American has any firm protection from the "rule of men". Approximately 6%-10% of the U.S. population understands this clearly enough to support Ron Paul for President. The rest evidently don't get it, at least not yet. Will having a constitutional law professor (Obama) in the White House make a difference? Stay tuned; it's looking like we're gonna find out. But the real battle must be waged in each and every congressional campaign. The forces of fascism are well-established, especially in our corporate-controlled media. Apparently they are quite capable of making the public view anyone who is pro-freedom as pro-crime, and anyone who is against "wartime" (including drug-wartime) curtailments of liberty and privacy as anti-American.

Consider: when we first started to have physical searches of airline passengers, presumably purely for safety reasons, why was their effect not strictly limited to improving the physical safety of the transport system, in recognition of the unprecedented invasion of personal privacy that these searches represent? Instead of exercising such caution with our freedoms, our government actually rates the effectiveness of these searches not in terms of what they do for passenger safety, but instead how many *other* "crimes", especially including drug-possession crimes, are detected on account of them. Why did this happen? Because the fascist media never blew the whistle? Because America's educational apparatus has brought up 2 generations in a row without any civics training? Because everything about our government is controlled by money? Because the Bush administration is a bunch of lawless thugs? All of the above. Fixing one of those problems won't fix the others. It *all* needs very serious reform, and, one way or another, reform will come. I'm afraid we're already gettjng the kind of reform that comes in the night, with "shock and awe" as its calling card, but *maybe* there's still time to turn things around. Sometimes I can muster up some hope; sometimes I just can't.

I'm looking at Larry Lessig as my prototype of hope for America's future. Right now, it's not clear that he's even going to run, but he's one of the people we need in Congress. ( I don't know what his position is on the drug war, but it really doesn't matter because he's paying attention to the bigger, longer game -- the one that the American people are losing: the rule of law, the loss of which the drug war is itself just one horrific symptom.

Fri, 02/29/2008 - 2:57pm Permalink
Chris Young (not verified)

I wish Buckly were alive to castigate the worthless Supreme Court who in Feburary decided twice 8 to 0 with the 1937 illeagalization law and against medical cannabis or whole plant meds and in October the court may decide to permanently outlaw and close all reform legally via the post ww2 expanded 10th amendment.I told my brother I had enjoyed since I was 8 the next day a White House communique railed against all esp early users as pemanently mentally ill,which then "disappeared"so no record or copy could be made.Chris Young
Sun, 05/08/2016 - 10:47am Permalink

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