Why is that more people who are politically progressive don’t speak out in favor of ending our nation’s disastrous war on drugs?

Part of the answer has to do with the fact that there are other fish for progressives to fry right now: like the other disastrous war (the one in Iraq), the battle over health care, and so forth.

But part of it also has to do with what might be called the “brain explodes” factor: the difficulty of reconciling the progressive belief that government can and should be a tool for taking care of vulnerable people with a stance on drugs that involves doing less to police ourselves, spending lessmoney, and perhaps having less control over individual behavior. If you’ve spent your life fighting for progressive causes, maybe walking a picket line here and there or doing your time in the nonprofit trenches, the whole notion of embracing a libertarian stance on a particular issue like drugs just doesn’t come naturally. The lack of consistency makes you feel uncomfortable, and then your brain explodes, and it’s a mess.

I’ve struggled with that issue for a while, because I do believe that government needs to play a significant role in our society, and I do believe that some regulation of market behavior is necessary to achieve reasonable outcomes. But I also think that our current drug laws are a total mess.

On most issues, I count myself a progressive. When it comes to drug law, I’m an unapologetic libertarian.

How can these positions be reconciled without causing brain explosion?

The answer is surprisingly simple: there isn’t any contradiction between believing that government can be a valuable tool for protecting people and wanting to see a change in the way we regulate drugs.

Because the “libertarian” model for drug control is not (contrary to what some people seem to think) just about “giving up” on the war on drugs, letting people do whatever the hell they want, and handing out speed to schoolkids. The libertarian model is about creating regulated markets around drugs, and using civil and administrative law as the primary, though not the only, mechanism for controlling behavior. It’s not about abandoning the effort to regulate drugs: it’s simply about regulating mostly through means other than guns, police, criminal courts and prisons.

What’s an example of the libertarian model? It might look like the way we control prescription drugs, requiring individuals to obtain a doctor’s recommendation to use strong drugs. It might look like the way we regulate alcohol and tobacco, allowing people to purchase and use certain substances responsibly once they reach the age of adulthood. And it might look like the facilities that exist in Switzerland, where people who really want to use powerful drugs like heroin can do so safely under medical supervision. In other words, there is a significant, even a large role for the government to play in drug regulation under the libertarian model. It’s just a role that is different from the one that government plays today, one that’s less about fighting a “war” against ourselves and more about dealing with the real health risks involved in drug use.

But the libertarian model isn’t “progressive” just because it includes a role for government. It’s progressive because, unlike our current system, it’s a model of governance that is actually about using state power to protect people.

The current criminal justice-oriented regime is adamant in its opposition to allowing government to make drug use safe. In the name of “sending a message” about how evil (some) drug use is, the criminal justice model completely abandons all attempts to regulate recreational drugs. It allows people to die from overdoses, and allows people to be traumatized by drugs that are not what they expected or are contaminated with all manner of cutting agents, fillers and toxic chemicals. It allows massive drug cartels to prey on recreational drug consumers without the slightest intervention by a regulatory regime, without being taxed on their products, without being subject to any form of civil liability for the costs these cartels impose on society. In short, it’s a total free-for-all, subject only to an occasional arrest of some bit player.

If any major pharmaceutical corporation or alcohol company ever had such a sweet deal, pumping its products out into a market full of ignorant consumers without any regulation whatsoever, we might recognize this system for what it is: an egregious government failure to stand between the public and predatory business interests. But we have somehow grown accustomed to thinking that this continual acquiescence to the interests of drug cartels is actually a “tough” stance on drugs, one that really “sends a message” to the manufacturers of cocaine and methamphetamine.

To me, that’s the fact that should make progressives’ brains explode: that this ostensibly “tough” policy on drugs actually facilitates a rapacious drug market whose size and influence only grows from year to year. That our “toughness” consists of allowing some drug companies — the “illegal” ones — to operate tax-free, liability-free and without any government oversight whatsoever.

That’s so tough I think I can feel my cerebellum starting to tremble.

A more libertarian approach to drug policy would cut through some of the nonsense and some of the lazy assumptions that have built up around this war on drugs. It would change the way we’re expending the limited resources of our government, allowing us to to stand up to the manufacturers of recreational drugs and to create safer conditions for people who choose to use such drugs rather than waging one more chapter in a battle against ourselves.

It wouldn’t be a cure-all for the real problems of addiction, because no system can. And it wouldn’t make certain that no child will ever use drugs, because no system can. But it might help turn back the tide on American’s incarceration binge, and it might help save some lives. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a pretty progressive goal, no brain explosion required.