National Police Misconduct Reporting Project

Milton Friedman on the Drug War

100 years ago, the great champion of liberty, Milton Friedman, was born.  Thus, it is  an appropriate day to recall some of his words about the American criminal justice system, particularly the drug war.

 

 

Here is Dr. Friedman’s foreword to my book, After Prohibition:

This book contains revised versions of papers given at a conference on “Beyond Prohibition: An Adult approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century,” held at the Cato Institute on October 5, 1999. The papers presented range widely over all aspects of current drug policy. The final two chapters record a debate held at the conference on whetherAmerica should legalize drugs.

Whatever your view about that issue, I believe that you cannot read this book without recognizing the social tragedy that has resulted from the attempt to prohibit people from ingesting an arbitrary list of substances designated “illegal drugs.” That list includes marijuana, for which there is no recorded case of human death from overdose in several thousand years of use and which has important medicinal uses, but excludes alcohol, which also has important medicinal uses but for which the annual death toll in theUnited Statesalone is measured in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. Not since the collapse of the attempt to prohibit the ingestion of alcohol has our liberty been in such danger from the misnamed “war on drugs.”

How can there be a war on drugs? Can there be a war on stones, on buildings, on aspirin? Surely, wars are on living, not inanimate, objects. And this war is being waged on people. Like every war, it is being waged in wanton disregard of “Life,Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”-”unalienable rights” with which we are endowed by our Creator, according to the Declaration of Independence.

As a nation, we have been destroying foreign countries because we cannot enforce our own laws. As a nation, we have been responsible for the murder of literally hundreds of thousands of people at home and abroad by fighting a war that should never have been started and can be won, if at all, only by converting theUnited Statesinto a police state. The annual arrest of nearly a million and a half people suspected of a drug offense, most of them for simple possession of small quantities, is frightening evidence of how far along that road we have already gone. So too is the overcrowding of our prisons, despite an unprecedented increase in capacity, leading to the release of persons convicted of violent crimes in order to make room for persons convicted of a drug offense and given minimum required sentences. Minimum required sentences that are sometimes so harsh that at least one judge has resigned rather than be the instrument for imposing cruel and inhumane punishment, and numerous other judges have registered strong protests (see chapter 8). So too is the fact, noted by Nova University law professor Steven Wisotsky, that “law enforcement officials-now joined by the military forces of the United States-have the power, with few limits, to snoop, sniff, survey, and detain, without warrant or probable cause, in the war against drug trafficking. Property may be seized on slight evidence and forfeited to the state or federal government without proof of the personal guilt of the owner….[and] and increasingly imperial federal government has applied intimidating pressures to shop owners and others in the private sector to help implement federal drug policy.

Why is it that laws against the ingestion of a class of substances have proved to be so much greater a threat to our freedom than laws against theft, assault, and murder? The answer is simple. Persons who have been harmed by theft, assault, and murder have a strong incentive to report the crime to law enforcement officials. There is a clear and evident victim. Enforcement of the law is a cooperative enterprise that enlists the assistance of the persons harmed.

By contrast, when a willing seller and a willing buyer transfer a substance that has been designated illegal, no one has an incentive to report what the law in its majesty has declared a crime. NO on has a direct incentive to cooperate with law enforcement officials. Evidence must be obtained in other ways, such as the use of informers-a practice that every totalitarian state has engaged in when it made it a crime to hold or publish the “wrong” beliefs, a crime that willing participants have no incentive to report. The Nazis and the Communists alike encouraged children to spy on and report their parents for “crimes against the state,” and so does the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (see chapter 10).

The lack of anyone who has a direct incentive to report an offense is also the reason drug enforcers are driven to warrantless searches, seizures of property without due process, and all of the other violations of civil liberties that have become so common in the relentless prosecution of the drug war.

The high financial stakes enhance the danger to our liberty. The produce widespread corruption, which requires the use of ever more resources to monitor the monitors, and enable drug dealers to finance armies and arms not obviously inferior to the armies and arms of the drug warriors. Only the well-financed and well-armed drug dealers can survive, with the ironic result that our drug enforcement efforts protect the major drug cartels from competition-more effectively than the OPEC cartel was ever able to protect itself from competition!

Law enforcement agencies are major beneficiaries of the drug war at the same time that law enforcement is a major victim. The agencies benefit from the many billions of dollars spent on pursuing the drug war and from the proceeds of forfeiture, an increasingly attractive and lucrative source of funds. Law enforcement suffers because the attempt to enforce laws against victimless crime breaks the link between law enforcers and the community; widespread corruption engendered by the vast sums at stake destroys the trust between police and public that is essential for the proper enforcement of the law (see chapter 7). Moreover, though total expenditures on law enforcement has increased greatly, so large a fraction goes to the drug war that less is available to enforce the laws against theft, assault and murder.

The Declaration of Independence tells us that “governments are instituted among men” in order “to secure” “certain unalienable rights” and that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” A nanny government has become destructive of these ends. It is past time that we alter it.

Milton Friedman
Hoover Institute
Stanford, California
September 8, 2000

Ever so slowly, policymakers are starting to come around on this subject.  

Police organizations too!  More here and here

For more info about the legacy of Milton Friedman, check out the Cato Institute home page.

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