There's No Justice in the War on Drugs
by Milton Friedman New York Times,1-11-98
Twenty-five years ago, President Richard M. Nixon announced a "War on Drugs." I criticized the action on both moral and expediential grounds in my Newsweek column of May 1, 1972, "Prohibition and Drugs":
On ethical grounds, do we have the right to use the machinery of government to prevent an individual from becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict? For children, almost everyone would answer at least a qualified yes. But for responsible adults, I, for one, would answer no. Reason with the potential addict, yes. Tell him the consequences, yes. Pray for and with him, yes. But I believe that we have no right to use force, directly or indirectly, to prevent a fellow man from committing suicide, let alone from drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
That basic ethical flaw has inevitably generated specific evils during the past quarter century, just as it did during our earlier attempt at alcohol prohibition.
1. The use of informers. Informers are not needed in crimes like robbery and murder because the victims of those crimes have a strong incentive to report the crime. In the drug trade, the crime consists of a transaction between a willing buyer and willing seller. Neither has any incentive to report a violation of law. On the contrary, it is in the self-interest of both that the crime not be reported.
That is why informers are needed. The use of informers and the immense sums of money at stake inevitably generate corruption -- as they did during Prohibition. They also lead to violations of the civil rights of innocent people, to the shameful practices of forcible entry and forfeiture of property without due process.
As I wrote in 1972: ". . . 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 -- will succumb to the temptation to pick up easy money."
2. Filling the prisons. In 1970, 200,000 people were in prison. Today, 1.6 million people are. Eight times as many in absolute number, six times as many relative to the increased population. In addition, 2.3 million are on probation and parole. The attempt to prohibit drugs is by far the major source of the horrendous growth in the prison population.
[ Editors note: By the end of 2001, the total in some part of the penal system had increased from 3.9 million to a record 6.6 million people, one out of every 32 adults.]
There is no light at the end of that tunnel. How many of our citizens do we want to turn into criminals before we yell "enough"?
3. Disproportionate imprisonment of blacks. Sher Horosko, at the time Connecticut's director of addiction services, stressed this effect of drug prohibition in a talk given in June 1995:
"Today in this country, we incarcerate 3,109 black men for every 100,000 of them in the population. Just to give you an idea of the drama in this number, our closest competitor for incarcerating black men is South Africa. South Africa -- and this is pre-Nelson Mandela and under an overt public policy of apartheid -- incarcerated 729 black men for every 100,000. Figure this out: In the land of the Bill of Rights, we jail over four times as many black men as the only country in the world that advertised a political policy of apartheid."