Milton Friedman, the War on Drugs, and Last Tuesday Night

Friday, November 9th, 2012

In light of this week’s milestone victories for common sense in Colorado and Washington, here’s Milton Friedman—one of my personal heroes—writing an open letter to Drug Czar William Bennett in the Wall Street Journal.

In Oliver Cromwell’s eloquent words, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken” about the course you and President Bush urge us to adopt to fight drugs. 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.

I append excerpts from a column that I wrote in 1972 on “Prohibition and Drugs.” The major problem then was heroin from Marseilles; today, it is cocaine from Latin America. Today, also, the problem is far more serious than it was 17 years ago: more addicts, more innocent victims; more drug pushers, more law enforcement officials; more money spent to enforce prohibition, more money spent to circumvent prohibition.

Had drugs been decriminalized 17 years ago, “crack” would never have been invented (it was invented because the high cost of illegal drugs made it profitable to provide a cheaper version) and there would today be far fewer addicts. The lives of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent victims would have been saved, and not only in the U.S. The ghettos of our major cities would not be drug-and-crime-infested no-man’s lands. Fewer people would be in jails, and fewer jails would have been built.

Columbia, Bolivia and Peru would not be suffering from narco-terror, and we would not be distorting our foreign policy because of narco-terror. Hell would not, in the words with which Billy Sunday welcomed Prohibition, “be forever for rent,” but it would be a lot emptier.

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.

Alcohol and tobacco cause many more deaths in users than do drugs. Decriminalization would not prevent us from treating drugs as we now treat alcohol and tobacco: prohibiting sales of drugs to minors, outlawing the advertising of drugs and similar measures. Such measures could be enforced, while outright prohibition cannot be. Moreover, if even a small fraction of the money we now spend on trying to enforce drug prohibition were devoted to treatment and rehabilitation, in an atmosphere of compassion not punishment, the reduction in drug usage and in the harm done to the users could be dramatic.

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. A country in which shooting down unidentified planes “on suspicion” can be seriously considered as a drug-war tactic is not the kind of United States that either you or I want to hand on to future generations.

Friedman wrote that 22 years ago.

In writing my book over the last several months, I’ve been waist-deep in the drug war propaganda of the early 1970s, and then of the 1980s and 1990s: the government dissemination of flat-out lies, the ceaseless efforts by politicians (ably abetted by a media always eager to pounce on sensationalism) to degrade and dehumanize drug offenders, the relentless martial rhetoric and calls to arms. There were the insane court decisions that shredded the Fourth Amendment. I’ve decided my favorite is United States v. Montoya de Herandez, in which the Supreme Court ruled that customs agents can seize someone coming in on an international flight, hold her incommunicado, then detain her until government agents can watch her defecate in front of them. There were the deeply cynical policies pushed by politicians, like the no-knock raid, which was never asked for police officials or recommended by criminologists, but was an idea dreamed up by Nelson Rockefeller aides (then later adopted by Nixon in the 1968 campaign) as a way to appeal white fears about black crime. There was a time when it was railed against on the floor of Congress (yes, really) and in the Supreme Court (yes, really) as a constitutional abomination, as an affront to the founding principles of the Castle Doctrine and the right to be let alone. When Congress first imposed the policy on Washington, D.C., the city’s police chief refused to use it (yes, really!). Today, it’s such an ingrained part of law enforcement, you’d be hard pressed to find a narcotics cop who could imagine ever doing his job without it. And of course, there are the scores and scores of heart-wrenching stories of death and destruction wrought by all of this madness.

Anyway, all of this was fresh in my head as I watched the election results come in Tuesday night. Whether or not Obama respects the wishes of voters in Washington and Colorado is really only relevant in the short term. I’m now convinced that we are finally winning the long game. I mean Jesus, medical marijuana just barely lost in Arkansas. I guess what I’m getting at here is that spending the last several months reading and writing about just how insane things were at the height of the drug war made me particularly aware of just how magnificent Tuesday night was. The tide is turning. It isn’t often easy to find reasons for optimism when you cover these issues day in and day out. Seeing outright legalization pass in two fairly large states—there’s no other way to interpret that as a sign that we are slowly returning to sanity. This would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 or 20 or 25 years ago.

Friedman’s was always the voice of reason on this issue. But 22 years ago it was a relatively lonely voice, particularly on the right (William Buckley was good on pot). That’s no longer the case. Yes, some of the most obstinate opposition still comes form the right, although as you’ve seen on this site,  it also comes from left-of-center paternalists and editorial boards. And most politicians of all stripes are, typically, a good 10 years behind the public on all of this. But the culture warriors are dying off. The coalition for sensible drug policy is broad, diverse, and has been gathering strength and momentum with each election.

The public is turning. Tuesday was historic. Enjoy it.

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59 Responses to “Milton Friedman, the War on Drugs, and Last Tuesday Night”

  1. #1 |  Vic Kelley | 

    “Had drugs been decriminalized 17 years ago, “crack” would never have been invented (it was invented because the high cost of illegal drugs made it profitable to provide a cheaper version)”

    NOT TRUE. Crack evolved. Drug use evolves. Users and dealers do whatever they can to get a better high. The most successful marketer of crack was Ricky Ross in Los Angeles. He was a colored drug dealer. His crack – he called it ready rock – got people higher and did so faster. He “cooked” it so his buyers could buy it and smoke it immediately. Get higher and do it faster that’s drug use evolution.

    Inhaling gets users higher. That people taught themselves to freebase in the 1960’s and 1970’s then developed crack in the 1980’s was inevitable. It wasn’t caused by drug policy it was caused by people choosing to dope themselves and wanting to get higher.

  2. #2 |  Judas Peckerwood | 

    @#48 — “He was a colored drug dealer.”

    Really? What color were the drugs?

    Oh… jackass!

  3. #3 |  Jim | 

    Milton Friedman. Mr. Paycheck-Tax-Withholding, his genius idea for funding WWII, ‘temporary’ of course. Piss on him.

  4. #4 |  Cynical in New York | 


    Depending on what goes down once the laws go into affect we’re guaranteed another episode in ideological hypocrisy. If Obama’s drug warriors go after them then the left is exposed once again that they don’t give a rats ass about civil liberties and personal choice. If the right starts to scream for the drug warriors to go after them then they’re exposed again on how they don’t give a rats ass about states rights and the “will of the people” as these measures were voted on, not decided by a judge(s) or the state government.


    Easy Judas, Vic is just another racial nationalist paleocon that has seemed to lost his way onto a libertarian blog. I think it’s a record that three of them have stumbled here within a week. The other two commented on Radley’s Prediction post. Who knows maybe us Agitators will get a treat and Lonewacko will make an appearance.

  5. #5 |  DarthFunyun | 

    I suggest you re-read the initiative… as long as the person is legally allowed to posses it and it was legally purchased in the state, they are allowed to use it. There is nothing listed to prohibit sharing, currently.

  6. #6 |  UvalDuvalCuckoo | 

    #35 Steamed McQueen – You’re arguing total cost vs per unit cost. Per Unit, you can get a $10.00 rock. Sure, you’ll want more and sure, if you have more money you’ll spend it. And yep, you’ll likely end up spending more than you would if you had an 8ball. But if you could get an easily available $10.00 or $25.00 bag of powder, most people would be scared to do it assuming it’s a bunch of stuff other than coke. And powder definitely has the effect of wanting more – I guess your mileage may vary individually but I can’t recall being at any parties where I woke up the next morning and saw the left over coke sitting around – things kept going until it was done. Crack has much more a compulsive vibe working for it no doubt, but on the whole, i think his statement was true

  7. #7 |  NL7 | 

    Waiting to see how people will react to legalizing drugs consumed by poor people and black people, not just drugs consumed by middle class white people. Mj is on the path but meth and crack have way more stigma.

  8. #8 |  Petraeus: Another “Iran-Contra”-Type Scandal? (And other news…) » Scott Lazarowitz's Blog | 

    […] Radley Balko: Milton Friedman, the War on Drugs, and Last Tuesday Night […]

  9. #9 |  Evan Cottrell | 

    I have never used “illegal drugs” and don’t plan to, but there is no question that legalization is the best approach. The church pastors that preach the horrors of drug use should continue to do so but should also promote legalization as the best approach to solving our drug problem. Please read my post on this subject: