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Willie Nelson and the Drug War

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Willie Nelsonby Jacob G. Hornberger

One of the benefits of the war on terrorism, from the standpoint of the statists, is that it has served to distract attention from the violations of civil liberties and privacy arising from that other famous federal war - the war on drugs. Last week’s arrest of Willie Nelson on pot charges at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Texas brings the drug war and its forever-growing violations of privacy and civil liberties back into the public spotlight.

Nelson’s arrest raises two fundamental issues about freedom and privacy.

The first issue goes to the heart of the drug war: What Willie Nelson or any other person chooses to ingest is his business, not the business of government officials.

The second issue goes to the heart of a society that presumes to be founded on the principles of freedom of travel and privacy: Border Patrol highway checkpoints, which subject people to full searches, are an inherent part of totalitarian societies, not free societies.

It’s none of the government’s business what Willie Nelson or anyone else ingests. It doesn’t matter how much people disapprove of drugs. It doesn’t matter how harmful drugs might be. Nothing can morally justify the state’s punishment of Willie Nelson or anyone else for possessing or consuming drugs. That’s his business, not the business of busybody politicians and bureaucrats.

I wrote about Border Patrol checkpoints back in 1998 in an article entitled “Domestic Passports for Hispanic Americans.” Let’s get clear on the nature of the checkpoints we’re dealing with here. In my hometown of Laredo, Texas, the border between Mexico and the United States is the Rio Grande. There are several bridges over the Rio Grande that connect the two countries. When someone crosses from Mexico into the United States, he encounters an enormous federal checkpoint, consisting of Border Patrol, immigration, customs, and DEA officials. Under the laws relating to controlled borders, the officials have the authority to require proof of citizenship and also to conduct a complete search of the person and his automobile.

That’s not what we’re dealing with in the arrest of Willie Nelson. He wasn’t crossing from Mexico into the United States. Rather, he was traveling entirely within the United States, going from California to Austin. He was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint situated on an east-west interstate highway, at which federal officials have all the same omnipotent powers of search and seizure that they do with people who cross from Mexico into the United States.

How is that possible?

Because federal officials say that since the area close to the border is the “functional equivalent” of the border, they have all the powers over Americans traveling within the United States that they do over people crossing the border into the United States.

Now, is that ridiculous or what? Crossing the Mexican-U.S. border is one thing. Traveling entirely within the United States is another thing. What these people have done with their cutesy re-definition is to establish domestic checkpoints that are mirror images of those that characterize Cuba, North Korea, China, and other totalitarian countries.

These checkpoints are also located on highways heading north from the border region. Suppose, for example, I decide to drive to Laredo. Even though I never enter Mexico, when I travel north out of Laredo on the way to San Antonio, I encounter a federal checkpoint at which I am required to stop. I am asked if I am an American citizen and sometimes I am required to open up the trunk of my car for inspection. As they wave me through, I always thank my lucky stars that someone hasn’t planted a package of cocaine underneath my rental car.

It’s no different at the Laredo airport. Anyone flying north must show his papers and submit to a search at the hands of not just the TSA but also the Border Patrol, even if he has never traveled into Mexico. Needless to say, darker-skinned Americans, especially ones that are not finely dressed, are subjected to extra scrutiny.

Of course, the statists consider all this to be part and parcel of a free society, a society whose government punishes the likes of Willie Nelson for doing something that is none of the government’s business. One thing’s for sure: When they cart Nelson off to jail, he won’t be singing the favorite refrain of American statists: “Thank God I’m an American because at least I know I’m free.”

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.


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