The Same Mistake

By Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate in Economics

"We seem bent on repeating precisely the same mistake in handling drugs"

Most crimes are not committed by people hungry for bread. By far more are committed by people hungry for dope. Should we have learned a lesson from Prohibition? When Prohibition was enacted in 1920, Billy Sunday, the noted evangelist and leading crusader against Demon Rum, greeted it as follows: "The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."

We know now how tragically wrong he was. New prisons and jails had to he built to house the criminals spawned by converting the drinking of spirits into a crime against the state. Prohibition undermined respect for the law, corrupted the minions of the law, and created a decadent moral climate -- and in the end did not stop the consumption of alcohol.

Despite this tragic lesson, we seem bent on repeating precisely the same mistake in handling drugs. There is no disagreement about some of the facts. Excessive drinking of alcohol harms the drinker; excessive smoking of cigarettes harms the smoker; excessive use of drugs harms the user. As among the three; awful as it is to make such comparisons, there is little doubt that smoking and drinking kill far more people than the use of drugs.

Consider first the addict. Legalizing drugs might increase the number of addicts, though it is not certain that it would. Forbidden fruit is attractive, particularly to the young. More important, many persons are deliberately made into drug addicts by pushers, who now give likely prospects their first doses free. It pays the pusher to do so because, once hooked, the addict is a captive customer. If drugs were legally available, any possible profit from such inhumane activity would largely disappear, since the addict could buy from a cheaper source.

Whatever happens to the total number of addicts and the possible increase of that number the individual addict would clearly be far better off if drugs were legal. Today, drugs are both extremely expensive and highly uncertain in quality. Addicts are driven to associate with criminals to get the drugs, and they become criminals themselves to finance the habit. They risk constant danger of death and disease.

Consider, next, the rest of us. The harm to us from the addiction of others arises primary from the fact that drugs are illegal. It has been estimated that from one third to one half of all violent and property crime in the United States is committed either by drug addicts engaged in crime to finance their habit, or by conflicts among competing groups of drug pushers, or in the course of the importation and distribution of illegal drugs.

Legalize drugs, and street crime would drop dramatically and immediately. 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 - succumb to the temptation to pick up easy money.

Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and improve law enforcement. It is hard to conceive of any other single measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order. But, you may ask, must we accept defeat? Why not simply end the drug traffic? That is where experience both with Prohibition and, in recent years, with drugs is most relevant. We cannot end the drug traffic.

We may he able to cut off opium from Turkey - but the opium poppy grows in innumerable other places. With French cooperation, we may be able to make Marseilles an unhealthy place to manufacture heroin, but the simple manufacturing operations can be carried out in innumerable other places. We may be able to persuade Mexico to spray or allow us to spray marijuana fields with parachute - but marijuana can be grown almost everywhere. We may be able to cooperate with Columbia to reduce the entry of cocaine - but success is not easy to attain in a country where the export is a large factor in the economy.

So long as large sums of money are involved - and they are bound to he if drugs are illegal - it is literally impossible to stop the traffic, or even to make a serious reduction in its scope.

Our emphasis here is based not only on the growing seriousness of drug-related crimes, hut also on the belief that relieving our police and our courts from having to fight losing battles against drugs will enable their energies and facilities to be devoted more fully to combatting other forms of crime. We would thus strike a double blow: reduce crime activity directly, and at the same time increase the efficacy of law enforcement and crime prevention.

"excerpted from "Tyranny of the Status Quo"