The Northwest Report
September 6, 2011
Interview: Milton Friedman on the Drug War
This is the transcript from “Friedman & Szasz On Liberty and Drugs.” It’s from a 1991 interview on “America’s Drug Forum.” The talk show appeared on numerous public television stations. Randy Paige is an Emmy Award-winning drug reporter.
Professor Milton Friedman was a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford. Friedman was considered the leader of the Chicago School of monetary economics. Milton Friedman also won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 1976 and the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. Today, Friedman is well known throughout the liberty community as staunch critic of Keynesian Economics and government intervention.
Paige: Let us deal first with the issue of legalization of drugs. How do you see America changing for the better under that system?
Friedman: I see America with half the number of prisons, half the number of prisoners, ten thousand fewer homicides a year, inner cities in which there’s a chance for these poor people to live without being afraid for their lives, citizens who might be respectable who are now addicts not being subject to becoming criminals in order to get their drug, being able to get drugs for which they’re sure of the quality. You know, the same thing happened under prohibition of alcohol as is happening now.
Under prohibition of alcohol, deaths from alcohol poisoning, from poisoning by things that were mixed in with the bootleg alcohol, went up sharply. Similarly, under drug prohibition, deaths from overdose, from adulterations, from adulterated substances have gone up.
Paige: How would legalization adversely affect America, in your view?
Friedman: The one adverse effect that legalization might have is that there very likely would be more people taking drugs. That’s not by any means clear. But, if you legalized, you destroy the black market, the price of drugs would go down drastically. And as an economist, lower prices tend to generate more demand. However, there are some very strong qualifications to be made to that.
The effect of criminalization, of making drugs criminal, is to drive people from mild drugs to strong drugs.
Paige: In what way?
Friedman: Marijuana is a very heavy, bulky substance and, therefore, it’s relatively easy to interdict. The warriors on drugs have been more successful interdicting marijuana than, let’s say, cocaine. So, marijuana prices have gone up, they’ve become harder to get. There’s been an incentive to grow more potent marijuana and people have been driven from marijuana to heroin, or cocaine, or crack.
Paige: Let us consider another drug then, and that is the drug crack.
Friedman: Crack would never have existed, in my opinion, if you had not had drug prohibition. Why was crack created? The preferred method of taking cocaine, which I understand was by sniffing it, snorting it, became very expensive and they were desperate to find a way of packaging cocaine…
Paige: The entrepreneurs?
Friedman: Of course, they’re entrepreneurs. The people who are running the drug traffic are no different from the rest of us, except that they have more entrepreneurial ability and less concern about not hurting other people. They’re more irresponsible in that way. But they’re in business and they’re trying to make as much as they can. And they discovered a good way to make money was to dilute this crack with baking soda or whatever else–I mean, cocaine, whatever else they do–I don’t know the procedure–so that they could bring it out in five dollar and ten dollar doses.
Paige: Let’s talk about that more in a minute. But with regard to crack, considering the fact that it’s very addictive and considering the fact that…
Friedman: That’s very dubious. It is addictive, but I understand from all the medical evidence that it’s no more addictive than other drugs. In fact, the most addictive drug everybody acknowledges is tobacco.
Paige: Well, let me rephrase that then. All of the information I’ve seen on it suggests that it is a drug which is very pleasurable.
Friedman: Absolutely, no doubt.
Paige: And the effect of it is also very short.
Paige: And it is very expensive because multiple doses cost a lot of money. My question is: If drugs were legalized and if crack cocaine were available at a low cost, could it not be devastating in that it is so pleasurable, I am told, that more people could get it and stay on it for longer periods of time?
Friedman: Well, maybe. Nobody can say with certainty what will happen along those lines. But I think it’s very dubious, because all of the experience with legal drugs is that there’s a tendency for people to go from the stronger to the weaker and not the other way around, just as you go from regular beer to light beer. That’s the tendency that there is: from cigarettes without filters to low-tar, filtered cigarettes, and so on. But I can’t rule out that what you’re saying might happen, but, and this is a very important but, the harm that would result from that would be much less than it is now, for several reasons. The really main thing that bothers me about the crack is not what you’re talking about, it’s the crack babies, because that’s the real tragedy. They are innocent victims. They didn’t choose to be crack babies any more than the people who are born with the fetal alcohol syndrome.
Paige: As you now, we are already experiencing epidemic proportions of that. One out of every four babies going into one hospital, I can tell you, in Maryland is addicted.
Friedman: But I’ll tell you, it isn’t that crack babies are necessarily addicted, but they tend to come in at low birth weight, they tend to come in mentally impaired, and so on. But you know that the number who do that from alcohol is much greater. So, the same problem arises there. That’s what bothers me.
Now suppose you legalized. Under current circumstances, a mother who is a crack addict and is carrying a baby is afraid to go the prenatal treatment because she turned herself into a criminal, she’s subject to being thrown in jail. Under legalized drugs, that inhibition would be off. And, you know, even crack addicts, mothers, have a feeling of responsibility to their children.
And I have no doubt that under those circumstances, it would be possible to have a much more effective system of prenatal care, a much more effective system of trying to persuade people who are on drugs not to have children or to go off drugs while they have children.
Paige: Let us turn to the early genesis of your belief that the drug laws may not be working the way the nation would hope them to. Tell me about the elements that you saw early on that changed your mind or changed your way of thinking.
Friedman: Well, I’m not saying “changed.” I would rather say “formed” my way of thinking, because I do not recall at any time that I was ever in favor of prohibition of either alcohol or drugs. I grew up–I’m old enough to have lived through some part of the Prohibition era.
Paige: And you remember it?
Friedman: I remember the occasion when a fellow graduate student at Columbia from Sweden wanted to take me downtown to a restaurant for a Swedish meal and introduced me to the Swedish drink aquavit. This was a restaurant at which this Swedish fellow had been getting aquavit all during Prohibition; they had been selling it to him. And this was just after the repeal of Prohibition. We went there and he asked them for some aquavit. They said, “Oh, no, we haven’t gotten our license yet.” And finally, he talked to them in Swedish and persuaded them to take us into the back where they gave us a glass of aquavit apiece. Now that shows the absurdity of it.
Prohibition was repealed in 1933 when I was 21 years old, so was a teenager during most of Prohibition. Alcohol was readily available. Bootlegging was common. Any idea that alcohol prohibition was keeping people from drinking was absurd. There were speakeasies all over the place. But more than that. We had this spectacle of Al Capone, of the hijackings, of the gang wars…
Anybody with two eyes could see that this was a bad deal, that you were doing more harm than good. In addition, I became an economist. And as an economist, I came to recognize the importance of markets and of free choice and of consumer sovereignty and came to discover the harm that was done when you interfered with them. The laws against drugs were passed in 1914, but there was no very great enforcement of it.
Paige: That was the Harrison Act?
Friedman: The Harrison Act. There was no very great enforcement of it until after World War II, by which time I had been able to see the harmful effects of price control, of rent control, of other attempts for government to interfere with market things. So, it never occurred to me to be in favor of it.
Paige: Was there any single event, anything you happened to witness that made an impression upon you or was it…
Friedman: No, there was no single event. It was a cumulative effect.
Paige: Of course, you know that there are those who say that when Prohibition was over with, consumption dramatically increased and that it would be a…
Friedman: I beg your pardon, that’s simply not true. That’s not a fact. What is true…
Paige: It has been argued. That has been argued.
Friedman: You have statistically reported figures in the books on the amount of alcohol consumed. That went up sharply right after Prohibition, but that was “illegal” alcohol consumption. If you take, as I have done, the chart of alcohol consumption before and after Prohibition, alcohol consumption after Prohibition came back roughly to where it was before, and, over the course of the period since then, if anything, alcohol consumption has been going down not in absolute terms, but relative to the population and relative to the growth of income.
For a time, it went up rather slowly, along with income, with one exception. During WW II, it shot way up. But that’s what happened during WW I. Of course, you never would have gotten Prohibition if you hadn’t had all the young men away in France when the vote was taken, so that the women had an extraordinary influence on it. But the same thing happened during WW II. And then after WW II, it settled down again. And more recently, the consumption of alcohol has been going down on a per capita basis. So, it simply is not true that there was a tremendous increase.
Friedman: So far as drugs itself is concerned, some years ago, Alaska legalized marijuana. Consumption of marijuana among high school students in Alaska went DOWN. The Dutch, in Holland, do not prosecute soft drugs, like marijuana, and they would prefer not to prosecute hard drugs, but they feel impelled by the international obligations they’ve entered into, and consumption of marijuana by young people has gone down. And, equally more interesting, the average age of the users of hard drugs has gone up, which means they’re not getting any more new recruits.
So, the evidence is very mixed. But I have to admit that the one negative feature of legalizing drugs is that there might be some additional drug habits. However, I want to qualify that in still another way.
The Child who’s shot in a slum in a pass-by-shooting, in a random shooting, is an innocent victim in every respect of the term. The person who decides to take drugs for himself is not an innocent victim. He has chosen himself to be a victim. And I must say I have very much less sympathy for him. I do not think it is moral to impose such heavy costs on other people to protect people from their own choices.
Paige: For us to understand the real root of those beliefs, how about if we just talk a minute about free market economic perspective, and how you see the proper role of government in its dealings with the individual.
Friedman: The proper role of government is exactly what John Stuart Mill Said in the middle of the 19th century in “On Liberty.” The proper role of government is to prevent other people from harming an individual. Government, he said, never has any right to interfere with an individual for that individual’s own good.
The case for prohibiting drugs is exactly as strong and as weak as the case for prohibiting people from overeating. We all know that overeating causes more deaths than drugs do. If it’s in principle OK for the government to say you must not consume drugs because they’ll do you harm, why isn’t it all right to say you must not eat too much because you’ll do harm? Why isn’t it all right to say you must not try to go in for skydiving because you’re likely to die? Why isn’t it all right to say, “Oh, skiing, that’s no good, that’s a very dangerous sport, you’ll hurt yourself”? Where do you draw the line?
Paige: Well, I would bet that former drug czar William Bennet, some other folks along those lines, would probably suggest that the present sale and distribution of illegal drugs is, in fact, an enterprise which harms another person and the government has to step in…
Friedman: [Simultaneously] It does harm a great many…
Paige:…to protect the vulnerable.
Friedman: It does harm a great many other people, but primarily because it’s prohibited. There are an enormous number of innocent victims now. You’ve got the people whose purses are stolen, who are bashed over the head by people trying to get enough money for their next fix. You’ve got the people killed in the random drug wars. You’ve got the corruption of the legal establishment. You’ve got the innocent victims who are taxpayers who have to pay for more and more prisons, and more and more prisoners, and more and more police. You’ve got the rest of us who don’t get decent law enforcement because all the law enforcement officials are busy trying to do the impossible.
Friedman: And, last, but not least, you’ve got the people of Colombia and Peru and so on. What business do we have destroying and leading to the killing of thousands of people in Colombia because we cannot enforce our own laws? If we could enforce our laws against drugs, there would be no market for these drugs. You wouldn’t have Colombia in the state it’s in.
Paige: Is it not true that the entire discussion here, the entire drug problem is an economic problem to…
Friedman: No, it’s not an economic problem at all, it’s a moral problem.
Paige: In what way?
Friedman: I’m an economist, but the economics problem is strictly tertiary. It’s a moral problem. It’s a problem of the harm which the government is doing.
I have estimated statistically that the prohibition of drugs produces, on the average, ten thousand homicides a year. It’s a moral problem that the government is going around killing ten thousand people. It’s a moral problem that the government is making into criminals people, who may be doing something you and I don’t approve of, but who are doing something that hurts nobody else. Most of the arrests for drugs are for possession by casual users.
Now here’s somebody who wants to smoke a marijuana cigarette. If he’s caught, he goes to jail. Now is that moral? Is that proper? I think it’s absolutely disgraceful that our government, supposed to be our government, should be in the position of converting people who are not harming others into criminals, of destroying their lives, putting them in jail. That’s the issue to me. The economic issue comes in only for explaining why it has those effects. But the economic reasons are not the reasons.
Of course, we’re wasting money on it. Ten, twenty, thirty billion dollars a year, but that’s trivial. We’re wasting that much money in many other ways, such as buying crops that ought never to be produced.
Paige: There are many who would look at the economics–how the economics of the drug business is affecting America’s major inner cities, for example.
Friedman: Of course it is, and it is because it’s prohibited. See, if you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.
Paige: Is it doing a good job of it?
Friedman: Excellent. What do I mean by that? In an ordinary free market–let’s take potatoes, beef, anything you want–there are thousands of importers and exporters. Anybody can go into the business. But it’s very hard for a small person to go into the drug importing business because our interdiction efforts essentially make it enormously costly. So, the only people who can survive in that business are these large Medellin cartel kind of people who have enough money so they can have fleets of airplanes, so they can have sophisticated methods, and so on.
In addition to which, by keeping goods out and by arresting, let’s say, local marijuana growers, the government keeps the price of these products high. What more could a monopolist want? He’s got a government who makes it very hard for all his competitors and who keeps the price of his products high. It’s absolutely heaven.
Paige: Of course, you know that there are conspiracy theorists who suggest it’s there for a reason, and that’s because governments are in cahoots with the drug runners; you wouldn’t say that.
Friedman: No, it’s not. I don’t say that at all. You know, over and over again in government policy, good intentions go awry. And the reason good intentions go awry is because you’re spending somebody else’s money.
Paige: Many would say that a lot of your theories are grounded in the notion of personal interest; if it is in an individual’s personal interest to do something, he or she will do that.
Friedman: That’s not a theory, and there’s nobody who will deny it. Is there anybody who will deny that you can expect every person to pursue his own personal interests? Now those personal interests don’t have to be narrow. Mother Theresa is pursuing her own personal interest just as much as Donald Trump is pursuing his. But they’re both pursuing the personal interest.
Paige: Some would say that that notion–that personal interest is what propels societies as well as people–is a heartless philosophy and that the underclass would not fare well under that kind of a notion. You’ve heard that before.
Friedman: Yes, of course. But the evidence is so overwhelming. The only countries in the world in which low income people have managed to get a halfway decent level of living are those which rely on capitalist markets. Just compare the quality of life, the level of living of the ordinary people in Russia and ordinary people in, I won’t say the U.S., but in France, in Italy, in Germany, in England, or in Hong Kong. Compare Hong Kong with mainland China.
Every society is driven by personal interest. Mainland China is driven by personal interest. The question is: How is personal interest disciplined? If the only way you can satisfy your personal interest is by getting something that other people want to pay for. You’ve got to…
Page: Or by forcing down other people’s throats at the point of a gun, I suppose.
Friedman: If you can do it.
Paige: At the extreme.
Friedman: At the extreme. But that won’t get their cooperation. You may be able to kill them. You may be able to take their wealth. But it won’t create any more wealth. So, the only societies which have been able to create broadly based relative prosperity have been those societies which have relied primarily on capitalist markets. That’s true whether you take Hong Kong versus mainland China, East Germany versus West Germany, Czechoslovakia before WW II and current. You cannot find a single exception to that proposition.
Adam Smith put it best over two hundred years ago, when he said people who intend only to pursue their self-interest are led by an invisible hand to promote the public interest even though that was no part of their intention. Mr. Ford did not develop the Ford car for the public interest. He did it for his private interest.
Paige: But Adam Smith also saw a role for government, for example, in the administration of justice, didn’t he?
Friedman: So do I. I am not a zero government person. I think there is a real role of government. And one of the reasons I object to so many of the things that government has gotten into is that it prevents government from performing its proper role. A basic role of government is to keep you from having our house burgled, to keep you from being hit over the head. And because the larger fraction of our law enforcement machinery is devoted to the war on drugs, you haven’t got that kind of safety.
Paige: But, of course, there is clearly the argument that if the police come and pick up a person who is addicted to a drug and does not have the money to buy those drugs, then they’re also taking a potential burglar off the street who’s going to come and get my house, right?
Friedman: They are, but they’ll be more of them coming on, as we know, and besides what are you going to do with them. Are you going to house them? A majority of those people who are arrested are simply arrested for possession, they’re casual users.
Paige: However, the sixty-five, seventy-five-year-old woman who looks out her window and sees drug dealers out in the street and she sees them carrying guns and selling drugs thirty feet from her front door has a right to call police and say, “I want these people off the street.”
Paige: And police should take them off the street. Correct?
Friedman: Absolutely. But it’s a mistake to have a law which makes that the main function of the police. I don’t blame the police. I don’t blame that woman. I don’t blame the drug dealers.
Paige: In what way?
Friedman: We put them in a position where that’s the thing to do. When we say to a young man in the ghetto, “Look, you get a reasonable job at McDonald’s or anyplace else, you’ll make five, six, seven dollars an hour. But on the other hand, here’s this opportunity to peddle drugs in the street.” Why does the juvenile have the opportunity? Because the law is easier on juveniles than it is on adults.
Paige: But how would you see legalization affecting poor in this country?
Friedman: The poor? It depends on which poor. But in the main, legalization as such would not have a major effect on the poor. It would provide better opportunities for the poor by rendering the inner cities safe and a place where you might have some decent, proper business. It would provide an opportunity to do more to improve schooling. The deterioration of the schooling, which is another case of ineffective socialism, has as much to do with the problems in the inner city as drugs do. Drugs aren’t the only thing at work.
But I don’t believe that legalization should be viewed primarily as a way to help the poor. Legalization is a way to stop–in our forum as citizens– a government from using our power to engage in the immoral behavior of killing people, taking lives away from people in the U.S., in Colombia and elsewhere, which we have no business doing.
Paige: So, you see the role of government right now as being just as deadly as if Uncle Sam were to take a gun to somebody’s head.
Friedman: That’s what he’s doing, of course. Right now Uncle Sam is not only taking a gun to somebody’s head, he’s taking his property without due process of law. The drug enforcers are expropriating property, in many cases of innocent people on whom they don’t have a real warrant. We’re making citizens into spies and informers. We tell people to call up, you don’t have to give your name, just give your suspicions. That’s a terrible way to run what’s supposed to be a free country.
Paige: Let us turn in the final few minutes then to specifically what your vision is then. Under your system, if you could make a wish and have it come true, what system would that be? How would you legalize drugs? How would you go about doing that?
Friedman: I would legalize drugs by subjecting them to exactly the same rules that alcohol and cigarettes are subjected to now. Alcohol and cigarettes cause more deaths than drugs do, by far, from use, but many fewer innocent victims. And the major innocent victims, in that case, are the people who are killed by drunk drivers. And we ought to enforce the law against drunk driving, just as we ought to enforce the law against driving under the influence of marijuana, or cocaine, or anything else.
But I would, as a first step at least, treat the drugs exactly the same way we now treat alcohol and tobacco, no different.
Paige: You know what Representative Charles Rangel (D-New York) would say.
Friedman: I have heard Charles Rangel. He’s a demagogue, who has had no relationship between what he says and the interests of his own constituents. His own constituents, the people he serves, are among the people who would be benefited the most by legalization of drugs. Charles Rangel is pursuing his own self-interest.
Paige: Forgive me for throwing out a name, but I just wanted to mention a typical response to that would be if you treat it like alcohol, you’re talking about full-page ads in magazines with cocaine. You’re talking about TV advertisers. You’re talking about buying cocaine…
Friedman: I beg your pardon. TV advertising is forbidden today for alcohol.
Paige: For hard liquor, that’s all.
Friedman: For hard liquor. And I say treat this the same way as you would treat Alcohol. So, presumably such ads would be forbidden for this.
But, of course, in any event I’m not prohibiting anybody from reading Mr. Rangel, and his ideas are at least as dangerous as those full-page ads you’re talking about.
Paige: What scares you the most about the notion of drugs being legal?
Friedman: Nothing scares me about the notion of drugs being legal.
Friedman: What scares me is the notion of continuing on the path we’re on now, which will destroy our free society, making it an uncivilized place. There’s only one way you can really enforce the drug laws currently. The only way to do that is to adopt the policies of Saudi Arabia, Singapore, which some other countries adopt, in which a drug addict is subject to capital punishment or, at the very least, having his hand chopped off. If we were willing to have penalties like that–but would that be a society you’d want to live in?
Paige: Do these notions seem obvious to you?
Friedman: Yes. I have thought about them for a long time. I have observed behavior in this country and in other countries for a long time. And I find it almost incredible how people can support the present system of drug prohibition. It does so much more harm than good.
Paige: If it is obvious, why is it that you’re in such a minority, particularly among…?
Friedman: Of course. Very good question. And the answer is because there are so many vested interests that have been built up behind the present drug war. Who are the people who are listened to about drugs? The people who have the obligation to enforce drug laws. They think they’re doing the right thing. They’re good human beings. Everybody thinks what he’s doing is worth doing. Nobody is doing it for evil motives. But it’s the same thing all over the government.
Paige: Wouldn’t you agree that fear is one of the strongest supports for the existing drug laws? Fear that, without them, the bottom would fall out.
Friedman: Yes, but it’s a fake fear and it’s a fear that is promoted. Listen to what the former drug czar, Mr. Bennet, said. First of all, he stated that consumption of alcohol after Prohibition has gone up three or fourfold or something. He was wrong, just factually wrong. He’s made all sorts of scare talk about how many new addicts there would be. He’s never provided a single bit of evidence, never provided any examples of any other place or anything. But why? Because he’s got a job to do.
Paige: Vested interests, you’re saying.
Friedman: Vested interests, self-interest, the same self-interest that people object to in the market. But in the market, if you start a project and it goes wrong, you have to finance it out of your own pocket.
Paige: Last question. You have grandchildren.
Paige: You have a two-year-old granddaughter.
Paige: And her name is?
Friedman: Her name is Becca.
Paige: When you look at Becca, what do you see for her and for her future?
Friedman: That depends entirely upon what you and your fellow citizens do to our country. If you and your fellow citizens continue on moving more and more in the direction of socialism, not only inspired through your drug prohibition, but through your socialization of schools, the socialization of medicine, the regulation of industry, I see for my granddaughter the equivalent of Soviet communism three years ago.
Paige: Do you worry about drugs affecting your granddaughter somehow?
Friedman: I don’t worry about drugs, but I worry about government doing something about drugs. I do not worry about her getting addicted to drugs. She has good parents. Her parents will provide her with good role models…
Paige: I just mean the violence surrounding the drug trade, just the…
Friedman: The violence is due to prohibition and nothing else. How much violence is there surrounding the alcohol trade. There’s some, only because we prohibit the sale of alcohol to children, which we should do, and there’s some because we impose very high taxes on alcohol and, as a result, there’s some incentive for bootlegging. But there’s no other violence around it.
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