United States

Friedman Made Right Call On Legalization

By Robyn Blumner

The economist who died recently understood decades ago that drug prohibition was bad for public policy, the economy and society. In 1971, when Richard Nixon declared his “War on Drugs,” calling for harsher penalties and stricter enforcement of drug laws, the renowned Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman had a John Lennon moment. He suggested we give peace a chance. To Friedman, who died earlier this month at 94, drug prohibition was unsound public policy, economic insanity and inherently immoral. It wasn’t the drug user who was immoral, as the political world asserted with so much vim and vinegar, the immorality stemmed from making users into criminals.

In a Newsweek article Friedman wrote in 1972, he took a step outside his realm of monetary policy and free marketeering and laid out in clear, unequivocal terms what kind of social disaster we were buying with Nixon’s drug war. Thirty years later, we know he couldn’t have been more right.

Friedman’s views emanated from libertarianism. He resented the government’s interference in an adult’s free will. But the economist in him also recognized the inexorable market forces that drove the illicit drug trade. He understood that as long as there was demand there would be supply, and by making drugs illegal, those enriched by the drug trade would be a violent, corrupting element of society.

In 1989, in a famous exchange he had on the pages of the Wall Street Journal with then-Drug Czar William Bennett, Friedman told Bennett that the prohibitionist’s model was doomed to fail and would grind up freedom in the process.

“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.”

Bennett apparently didn’t see the hypocrisy in cherishing his freedom to gamble, while waging war against the rights of others to engage in their own personal vices. “The Book of Virtues” author who reportedly lost millions in Atlantic City and Las Vegas (Bennett must equate “moral” with technically legal), was a drug warrior of the first order, dismissing Friedman’s legalization prescription as “irresponsible and reckless.”

We’ve followed the Nixon/Bennett drug-war model for 30 years and what we have to show for it was predictable from Day One.

Those who have gotten rich on the illicit drug trade are drug lords and their cartels who use violence to control their enterprise. The money that flows from the illegal sales corrupts everything it touches from the cops on the beat to entire countries like Colombia. Drug use has not been curbed, yet our prisons have filled up with low-level dealers and users.

We have spent $1 trillion on the drug war since 1972 and we arrest 1.7 million people for nonviolent drug offenses every year. When you put a rapist in prison another one doesn’t get recruited to take his place, but that is precisely what happens in drug dealing. Take one guy off the streets and that becomes a job opportunity for someone else in the neighborhood.

And despite this huge interdiction, enforcement and imprisonment apparatus that we have shoveled money into over the last 30 years, illicit drugs have become cheaper and more available.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” We must really be nuts.

Friedman wasn’t the only brilliant economist to make the case for drug legalization. Nobel laureate Gary Becker wrote a column in Business Week in 2001 titled “It’s Time to Give Up the War on Drugs.”

Then, in 2005, Dr. Jeffrey Miron, a visiting professor at Harvard, published a report which called for replacing marijuana prohibition with a taxation and regulation scheme. It was endorsed by more than 500 distinguished economists.

Miron found that government could save between $10 billion and $14 billion annually if marijuana were legalized and taxed. As the Marijuana Policy Project noted, that would be enough to secure the former Soviet Union’s “loose nukes” within three years. If safety and security is the goal, where would a yearly sum of $10 billion be better spent?

Since his death, Friedman has been lovingly eulogized by the nation’s premier conservative voices, but few have lauded his bold and visionary understanding of the drug war. Legalization of drugs is Friedman’s best economic and moral thesis that has been left untried; and one day, when courage returns to politics and we take this sensible step, experience will bear that out.

Minneapolis Star Tribune. November 26, 2006