In 1972, Newsweek published what must have been considered by many readers to be a shocking commentary on the drug war by libertarian Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman. Entitled “Prohibition and Drugs,” Friedman’s article called for the legalization of drugs — all drugs.
Friedman made two primary libertarian arguments in favor of drug legalization: freedom and practicality. He wrote,
On ethical grounds, do we have the right to use the machinery of government to prevent an individual from becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict? For children, almost everyone would answer at least a qualified yes. But for responsible adults, I, for one, would answer no. Reason with the potential addict, yes. Tell him the consequences, yes. Pray for and with him, yes. But I believe that we have no right to use force, directly or indirectly, to prevent a fellow man from committing suicide, let alone from drinking alcohol or taking drugs….
Whatever happens to the number of addicts, the individual addict would clearly be far better off if drugs were legal. Today, drugs are both incredibly expensive and highly uncertain in quality. Addicts are driven to associate with criminals to get the drugs, become criminals themselves to finance the habit, and risk constant danger of death and disease….
Consider next the rest of us. Here the situation is crystal clear. The harm to us from the addiction of others arises almost wholly from the fact that drugs are illegal. A recent committee of the American Bar Association estimated that addicts commit one-third to one-half of all street crime in the U.S. Legalize drugs, and street crime would drop dramatically. Moreover, addicts and pushers are not the only ones corrupted. Immense sums are at stake. It is inevitable that some relatively low-paid police and other government officials — and some high-paid ones as well — will succumb to the temptation to pick up easy money.
Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and raise the quality of law enforcement. Can you conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order?…
So long as large sums of money are involved — and they are bound to be if drugs are illegal — it is literally hopeless to expect to end the traffic or even to reduce seriously its scope. In drugs, as in other areas, persuasion and example are likely to be far more effective than the use of force to shape others in our image.
Almost 20 years later, in 1990, the Wall Street Journal published another commentary on the drug war by Friedman, where he once again called for legalizing drugs. In that commentary, Friedman detailed how drug prohibition had turned out to be an unmitigated dis- aster, with respect to both freedom and the horrific consequences the war was having on society. In his “Open Letter to Bill Bennett,” Friedman wrote,
The path you propose of more police, more jails, use of the military in foreign countries, harsh penalties for drug users, and a whole panoply of repressive measures can only make a bad situation worse. The drug war cannot be won by those tactics without undermining the human liberty and individual freedom that you and I cherish.
You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are a scourge that is devastating our society. You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are tearing asunder our social fabric, ruining the lives of many young people, and imposing heavy costs on some of the most disadvantaged among us. You are not mistaken in believing that the majority of the public share your concerns. In short, you are not mistaken in the end you seek to achieve.
Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favor are a major source of the evils you deplore. Of course the problem is demand, but it is not only demand; it is demand that must operate through repressed and illegal channels. Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault.
Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike. Our experience with the prohibition of drugs is a replay of our experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages….
Decriminalizing drugs is even more urgent now than in 1972, but we must recognize that the harm done in the interim cannot be wiped out, certainly not immediately. Postponing decriminalization will only make matters worse, and make the problem appear even more intractable.
This plea comes from the bottom of my heart. Every friend of freedom, and I know you are one, must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the United States into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence….
Whatever else may be said about drug prohibition, one thing is for sure: It has not worked. That is, it has not achieved its purported goal — which is the end (or significant suppression) of drug use within the United States.
Moreover, it has not been a benign program, one whose effects are neutral. Friedman has been proven right — the drug war has served to destroy the very fabric of society. It has destroyed the lives of drug addicts, drug users, and ordinary people who have succumbed to the temptation to enter the drug trade owing to its large black-market profits. It has corrupted law enforcement and the judiciary. It has brought into existence drug gangs, drug cartels, unsavory drug dealers, and drug-gang violence. It has motivated robberies, burglaries, muggings, and thefts. Most important, it has served as one of the most egregious violations of the principles of liberty in U.S. history. There is nothing positive that can be said about this government program. Nothing at all.
Drugs versus murder
So then, why is it still in existence? Why hasn’t drug prohibition been repealed?
One reason is that many people remained convinced that if an activity is harmful, it should be criminalized. For them, it doesn’t matter that the drug war has failed to stamp out drugs in society. It doesn’t matter that the consequences of drug prohibition have been disastrous to freedom and society. All that matters to them is that the law punish people who engage in an activity that other people say is harmful.
Yet, many people would say that adultery is harmful. So is coveting. Indeed, alcoholism and tobacco use are much more harmful than using illegal drugs. Some would say that obesity is harmful. Indeed, climbing Mount Everest can be harmful.
Most people would oppose the criminalization of those activities. That’s because most people, whether they realize it or not, embrace the core principle of libertarianism — that people should be free to engage in peaceful activity, even when it is harmful and destructive to the person engaging in it and to others around him.
Isn’t that what genuine freedom is all about? If the government wields the authority to punish a person for engaging in purely peaceful behavior — including ingesting whatever he wants in the privacy of his own home — then how can people in that society be considered genuinely free?
Some drug-war proponents compare the violation of drug laws to laws against violent behavior, e.g., laws against murder, rape, and robbery. In response to the idea of repealing drug laws, they sarcastically respond, “Why don’t we go ahead and repeal laws against murder, rape, and robbery?”
The answer is simple: Laws against murder, rape, and robbery aim to punish acts of violence by one person against another person. No one has the right to initiate force against someone else. That’s one of the legitimate purposes of government — to punish people who do that.
The difference with drug laws is that the person who chooses to ingest drugs hasn’t initiated force against anyone. That is, unlike a person who commits murder, rape, and robbery, the drug user hasn’t violated anyone’s rights. His actions might adversely affect his family, just as alcoholism does, but that doesn’t make it the business of the state.
Some drug-war proponents say that legalizing drugs would send the wrong message, especially to young people — that it would say that society condones drug use or drug abuse. Yet, most people would oppose criminalizing adultery and don’t concern themselves with the message that might be sending. The same for alcohol and tobacco use. In many areas of our lives, we leave it to people to figure out for themselves what is good and what is bad and to decide for themselves accordingly.
One of the primary concerns of people who continue to support drug laws is their fear that drug legalization will cause more young people to ingest drugs.
Yet, if there is anything we have learned from more than 40 years of drug warfare, it is that young people can get illicit drugs whenever they want. The drug war has done nothing to stop that.
In fact, the drug war actually ensures that more young people get into drugs. Illicit drugs will always be more plentiful for young people in a black market. That’s because drug dealers have an incentive to get young people hooked on their product. Once drugs are legalized, the drug dealers, the drug gangs, and the drug cartels go out of business immediately. They cannot compete against pharmacies and other private-sector companies that are now selling drugs. Unlike drug dealers in an illegal market, businesses in a legal market have a reputation to uphold. Their customer base depends on it. Thus, they have an incentive to avoid selling drugs to young people, given the adverse publicity that would come with selling drugs to them.
The thrust of the drug war has always been the investigation, arrest, and incarceration of people who deal in drugs and people who possess them. Hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted, with some of them made to serve draconian jail sentences.
What has all that punishment accomplished? It has accomplished nothing except the ruination of lives. No matter how many people have been arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated, drug use, drug possession, and drug distribution have continued.
So what’s the point of arresting, prosecuting, convicting, and incarcerating people if it doesn’t do any good? Why ruin people’s lives for nothing? Just to provide jobs to people in law enforcement, the judiciary, and the prison industry?
There is a good reason that all that criminal punishment for drug offenses has accomplished nothing. The reason is the natural law of supply and demand. When drugs are legal, the price of such drugs is reasonable. If the price starts rising, producers tend to produce more, which causes the price to decrease. Drug addicts and drug users simply factor the price into their daily spending budget.
The minute drugs are made illegal, however, everything changes. Legitimate suppliers — e.g., pharmacies — are immediately put out of business, thereby decreasing the supply of drugs on the market. That causes prices to soar, which then attracts people into the drug trade. The state decides to crack down on those people for violating its drug laws. That causes the prices of drugs to soar even more. The more the prices rises, the greater the profit potential. The greater the profits, the more people are enticed to score big by entering the drug trade.
That’s why drug gangs, drug cartels, and unsavory drug dealers have inundated the drug-war market over the years. It also explains why the government’s destruction of a certain drug cartel or a big drug dealer never accomplishes anything. As soon as a drug dealer is killed or captured, he is immediately replaced by someone else who stands to score big. It also explains why so many ordinary people get enticed into the drug trade. Just one big drug transaction or many small ones can help pay lots of bills.
Some drug-war proponents say that the solution is to really crack down by enforcing drug laws viciously and mercilessly. What they fail to recognize is that that is precisely what has occurred ever since Friedman penned his Newsweek essay in 1972.
That’s why mandatory minimum sentences were enacted. Concerned that the jail sentences that judges were meting out for drug offenses were too lenient, Congress enacted a law requiring judges to send drug offenders to prison for much longer periods of time — even 10, 20, or 30 years. Some offenders are now even dying of old age in prison.
It is also why civil asset-forfeiture laws were enacted. They permit the police to seize cars, money, and other assets from people who they suspect may be drug-law violators. No lawsuit. No formal accusation. No indictment. No charges. Just seize the asset. If a person is really innocent, he can sue to get his money back.
The idea was that asset forfeiture would break the back of the drug trade. If cops could just seize the ill-gotten fruits of the drug trade without having to go to court, drug dealers would finally be forced out of business.
It didn’t happen. Instead, the result of civil asset forfeiture has been that monies, cars, and other assets are seized from poor and middle-class people who are innocent of any drug crime but who lack the money to hire an attorney to get their property returned. In many instances, the amount they would have to pay an attorney exceeded the value of what has been taken from them.
Moreover, civil asset forfeiture has become the core aspect of the corruption that drug laws bring to law enforcement. All too often, the police have become self-funding fiefdoms that operate independently of legislative budgeting for their departments.
I would be remiss if I failed to point out the racist aspects of the war on drugs. This government program has been a dream-come-true for bigoted cops because it has given them legal license to harass, abuse, insult, and ruin African-Americans. That’s not to say, of course, that all law-enforcement officers are racists. It is to say that the drug war has provided those who are racists with the opportunity to exercise their bigotry in a legal manner.
It’s a good theoretical question whether the state could crack down so completely that drugs are stamped out of society, once and for all. But as Friedman points out, that would mean a complete police state, one in which there would undoubtedly be government surveillance cameras in every home and business. Would stamping out drug use be worth the total destruction of liberty?
Consider what has been going on in the Philippines during the past two years. In an effort to finally win the war on drugs, the government has been killing suspected drug offenders on sight. It is estimated that thousands of suspected drug-law violators have been murdered. Yet even there the drug war goes on. It has still not been won. The lesson is clear: Even if the DEA and state and local police here in the United States were authorized to kill drug-law offenders on sight, the drug war would still not be won.
Winning the drug war
The point is simple: The war on drugs will never be won, at least not without the total destruction of liberty in America. Would the total destruction of liberty be worth it? One hopes that most Americans would say no.
So if the drug war is incapable of being won, if it necessarily produces horrific adverse consequences, then there is obviously only one thing that can be done: legalize drugs, just as Milton Friedman advocated as far back as 1972 and 1990.
That would put the drug gangs, drug cartels, and unsavory drug dealers out of business overnight, accomplishing what decades of criminal prosecution and incarceration have been unable to accomplish. Immediately, all the violence between drug dealers and drug gangs would come to an end. Pharmacies and other reputable businesses would begin selling drugs.
Prices would plummet, which would mean that drug addicts and drug users would no longer have to engage in robbery or theft to pay exorbitant black-market prices. Ordinary people would no longer be tempted to engage in criminal drug activity in the hope of scoring big. After all, how many winos are busted for robbing and stealing to pay for their habit? Very few, because the price of cheap wine doesn’t make crime worthwhile.
Legalization would mean that the police and the federal government would be out of the drug-war business, which would enable them to focus their attention on real crime — i.e., murders, rapes, and robberies.
Drug addiction and drug abuse would be handled socially, just as alcoholism and tobacco addiction are. People with drug problems would no longer fear being sent to jail for their problem. They could be treated sympathetically and empathetically by others rather than as criminals.
Most important, drug legalization would help to restore liberty to our land. The fact is that freedom necessarily entails the right to do whatever a person wants, so long as his conduct is peaceful. Yes, drugs may be extremely harmful and destructive to a person. But that doesn’t make it the business of the state. The state’s responsibility is to protect the exercise of freedom, not destroy it.
The best thing Americans could have ever done back in 1972 and 1990 was to heed Milton Friedman’s warnings about what the drug war was doing to American society. The best thing Americans could do today is to heed his words now. Legalize drugs — all drugs. It’s the way to help restore a peaceful, harmonious, healthy, humane, and moral society to our land.