Milton Friedman on Drug Legalisation and the "Iron Law of Prohibition"
The late Milton Friedman deplored drugs, yet he was a passionate advocate of drug legalisation.
While many have praised Friedman for his promotion of free markets as the solution to many of mankind's problems, few have acknowledged his view that drug legalisation is the best and only real answer to the drug epidemic.
Johann Hari of Britain's Independent, while clearly not a supporter of Friedman in many areas, has brilliantly summarised his views on drug legalisation. Read the full aricle here.
Hat Tip Not PC
Friedman thought (rightly) that heavy drug use – whether it was alcoholism, cannabis-addiction or junkiedom – was a human disaster. He once told Bill Bennett, Bush Snr’s drugs tsar, “You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are a scourge that is devastating our society. Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favour are a major source of the evils you deplore.”
Friedman proved, for example, that prohibition changes the way people use drugs, making many people use stronger, more dangerous variants than they would in a legal market. During alcohol prohibition, moonshine eclipsed beer; during drug prohibition, crack is eclipsing coke. He called his rule explaining this curious historical fact “the Iron Law of Prohibition”: the harder the police crack down on a substance, the more concentrated the substance will become.
Why? If you run a bootleg bar in Prohibition-era Chicago and you are going to make a gallon of alcoholic drink, you could make a gallon of beer, which one person can drink and constitutes one sale – or you can make a gallon of pucheen, which is so strong it takes thirty people to drink it and constitutes thirty sales. Prohibition encourages you produce and provide the stronger, more harmful drink. If you are a drug dealer in Hackney, you can use the kilo of cocaine you own to sell to casual coke users who will snort it and come back a month later – or you can microwave it into crack, which is far more addictive, and you will have your customer coming back for more in a few hours. Prohibition encourages you to produce and provide the more harmful drug.
For Friedman, the solution was stark: take drugs back from criminals and hand them to doctors, pharmacists, and off-licenses. Legalize. Chronic drug use will be a problem whatever we do, but adding a vast layer of criminality, making the drugs more toxic, and squandering £20bn on enforcing prohibition that could be spent on prescription and rehab, only exacerbates the problem. “Drugs are a tragedy for addicts,” he said. “But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike.”
Some people imagine that after drug prohibition ends, drug use will become rampant, with Chigwell housewives shooting up next to the chintzy ironing board. No historical analogy is perfect, but with one of his extraordinary dense statistical analyses, Friedman showed that the fears at the end of alcohol prohibition – that everyone would be glugging gin the moment they could freely buy it – proved to be false. In fact, alcohol use went back to pre-Prohibition levels, and has been falling since, with a brief spike in the Second World War. He also showed that the vast majority of criminals who had bartered in alcohol did not simply move into another form of crime, but went legit when the temptations of such a profitable criminal market disappeared.
New Zeal As someone who is extremely anti drugs and has seen their disastrous effects up close, I strongly endorse Friedman's views.