Something interesting is happening in the USA, even the American right is starting to have a debate about drug law reform. Support for the war on drugs has been one of those things which have underpinned the Republican movement in the US ever since Richard Nixon invented the whole sorry mess in the early 70’s.  It has its roots in the disaster that was the American war in Vietnam during the 60’s where American troops hid from the horror with heroin and the peace movement back home had deep roots in the counter culture based as it was on the use of the psychedelic drugs.

The drug subculture of the 60’s has long been linked  in the minds of the American right with that humiliating defeat in Vietnam and therefore a war on drugs and everything associated with them has had a natural home in Republican philosophy for the past 40 years. So what’s happening?

There is something of a battle taking place in America right now for the heart of the Republican movement and a split unthinkable a few years ago is opening up between the  “traditional values” staunchly religious and the newer “libertarian” wings.

Libertarianism holds that the individual is responsible for his or her self and that the government has no role to play in protecting the individual from himself. It is, perhaps, the logical extension of the free enterprise philosophy, of true, free market freedom. This is of course very compatible with the oft stated intention of Republicans to  want “small government” and to be the promoters of individual freedom. Against this is the “traditional” wing of the party which, although it believes in small government also seems to support big authoritarian government when it comes to drugs, so the potential for an interesting debate is clearly there and it’s beginning to smoulder.

The American right has something the British right wing doesn’t have, a TV channel dedicated to presenting the right wing view of reality, the so-called “news” channel run by the owner of the UK’s Sun newspaper amongst much else, Rupert Murdoch. Fox news is available on (the part-Murdoch owned) Sky TV service and anyone interested in seeing a different take on reality is able to watch it here in the UK, try not to laugh though because Fox news is not a parody, it takes itself very seriously and is very influential. Actually, Fox news isn’t really a news station either, it carries more commentary than news and that commentary has a highly polarised political slant. Fox news is the voice of the American right and it makes no secret of it.

So it is interesting to see one of the main commentators on Fox news coming out in support of drug law reform and calling for the legalisation of drugs. Not just cannabis mind, but all drugs.

John Stossel is “the man who shatters conventional wisdom” according to Fox and he has entered the fray with the libertarian argument virtually alone to very much challenge the views of some of the other commentators and the “conventional wisdom” of the American right. To this end he presented a whole programme dedicated to the issue:  “Time to Stop Fighting the Drug War” – there’s a summary here or you can watch it for the time being here.

British viewers more used to the level of debate we get on the BBC or even ITV will probably be amazed at the shallowness of this presentation, especially the obviously edited “discussion” section, but for Fox news this was quite an event. To be fair it did expose a some of the key issues  to do with the creation of violence and especially the gung-ho way American “SWAT” teams kick peoples doors down and shoot their dogs for tiny amounts of cannabis.

The show is introduced with John Stossel on the streets of New York outside the Fox news studios describing how he often smells marijuana in the city, how 15 million Americans used it last month, how some smoke quite openly and how the police often ignore them, but then went on to describe the SWAT raids. Everyday there are more than 100 of these SWAT raids and he asks “why”?

He introduces the show by agreeing that drugs can cause big problems, but lays out his case that drug prohibition, as with alcohol prohibition – has only served to create violence and the rule of the mob. A straw poll of the small studio audience shows close to 50% support for legalising cannabis, less for other drugs but still quite significant – and this is Fox news remember!

Stossel makes the point that he no longer sees a distinction between hard and soft drugs in that if we either own our bodies and so control what goes into them or we don’t; the basic libertarian argument. He then shows an interview on a couple of fellow commentators shows on Fox who don’t agree and throw stats at him. Harvard economist and fellow libertarian Jeffrey Miron counters these arguments quite succinctly as “grotesque exaggeration of the facts”. End of part 1.

Part 2: The situation in Mexico. The drug war effort is compared to squeezing a balloon and because we displaced it from one place it’s now turned up in another – Mexico. Mary O’Grady and Jeffrey Miron debate the issue and both agree on the cause of the problem, prohibition mixed with high demand. Mary O’Grady of The Wall Street Journal makes the point that decriminalising drugs will only make the problem worse, but she is against legalisation because America is a “welfare state”, an argument that was hard to follow frankly.  Jeffrey Miron points out that driving the market underground has made it violent and that public health campaigns can be effective at reducing use. End of part 2

Part 3 The SWAT raids. The famous shooting the dog raid is shown again. Only a small amount of cannabis was found in this raid which resulted in a $300 fine – and the father was charged with “endangering his child” – although strangely the police weren’t also charged with endangering the child despite breaking into the house all guns blazing,they didn’t apologise either.

This type of police violence has become quite the norm in America apparently, even resulting in a similar raid (complete with dogs getting shot) on the home of Cheye Calvo, a mayor of a small town who was wrongly accused of importing cannabis. This, apparently, is “business as usual” in the USA. End of part 3

Part 4 is the “debate” between Paul Chanbot, a drug war supporting ex-military ex-drug tsar official and LA Narcotics Officer and Neill Franklin from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition LEAP who is an anti drug war former police officer.  This “debate” runs for 5 minutes and 30 seconds, during which time Neill Franklin gets one crack at the whip lasting in total 1 minute, almost all the rest of the time is given over to Paul Chanbot. The “debate” is clearly (and in places quite badly) edited. that’s it for part 4

Part 5 is an “audience grilling” of Neill Franklin, Jeffrey Miron and Paul Chanbot. The “grilling” amounts to one question to each of the guests with no interaction  and then questions from the audience, again which are only answered by one of the guests but a small amount of debate is allowed when Niall Franklin from LEAP counters a frankly unbelievable claim from Paul Chanbot who claimed the American police don’t actually go after small time users. A questioner asks about CIA involvement with the drugs trade which Paul Chanbot finds “offensive”. Is the war on drugs a “job creation” programme does actually fire things up just in time for the end of part 5

Part 6 is left to John Stossel to sum up, which, within the narrow limits of the argument on offer he does quite well including a small vox pop of Richard Nixon declaring “we have turned the corner on drug addiction” back in 1971 or so.

Fox news so often offers us a horror vision of just how bad unregulated TV can be and this show was far from being a jewel in the mud, but this debate being allowed airtime on the station at all is an indication that real change is perhaps not far away.