The Drug War is Lost: a (1992) interview with Milton Friedman

I stumbled on this quite by accident on the newsgroups.  Someone, posting as Annie, has been kind enough to translate an interview with Nobel Laureate (economics) Milton Friedman.  The interview was apparently first published in 1992, but I think it is still quite worth reading and referencing.  So I will reproduce the post in it in its entirety here.

Several people have requested that I post a translation of the Spiegel
interview in full:

“The drug war is lost”
Interview with the American Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman on
the legalization of the illicit drug market

Der Spiegel, 14/1992

Spiegel:  The United States puts out 12 billion dollars a year on its
all-out war on drugs, but victory seems farther away than ever.  Why is

Friedman:  Why is it that the socialist government of the Soviet Union
was a disaster, and the GDR just as unsuccessful?

S:  We actually wanted to talk about the American drug-politik…

F:  …that carries all signs of a socialist program.  If a private
program falls apart, brings losses, then there’s lots of people losing
lots of money. Therefore they have a great interest in ending such a
program before it leads to ruin.  However a government, whose program
fails, must neither admit failure nor pay out of its own pocket.

S:  Is the anti-drug program, therefore, always going to escalate?

F:  The reaction to failed government programs is always the same:
People say it must be made only a little bit different, a little bit
bigger, a little bit more expensive.

S:  Since when have we seen this tendency?

F:  The War on Drugs was began with Richard Nixon in 1969.  That project
failed, but was put on the back burner for the next 17 years.  The War
on Drugs was started up again by Ronald Reagan.  He expanded it, especially
in Florida, but he couldn’t win, either.  Then came Mr. Bush, who declared
total war and appointed with much fanfare a drug czar named William Bennet.
S:  Who was in office for only 20 months.

F:  He stepped down after he told the whole world that the measures he
initiated had been a total success.  But that wasn’t the case.  Back in
1972 I predicted the failure of the Nixon Administration’s anti-drug
programs and recommended the legalization of all drugs.  I’ve not had
any indications that I should revise the judgements I’ve made at that

S:  You share these opinions with former Secretary of State George Schultz
and columnist William F. Buckley.  They belong to a small group of

F:  …that group isn’t so small anymore; I’m not a conservative anyway,
never was one.  A conservative is someone who wants to leave things as
they are.  That’s not what I want.  I am a liberal, in the classic
European meaning of the word.

S:  Very well.  As a liberal, you recommend the legalization of drugs.

F:  I am against the prohibition as we have it and plead therefore, that
drugs be dealt with in just the same way alcohol and tobacco are.

S:  Which are legally for sale.

F:  With certain restrictions.  Alcohol can only be bought by persons of
a certain age, not during worship times and some places only from particular
government-run stores.

S:  Are these restrictions too broad for a free-market economist?

F:  It would be better to have the free market do the regulating. It can,
but it should not, be the role of the government to sell hard drugs, any
more than it should be to run a lottery or to promote gambling.

S:  Many states see a good source of income in that.

F:  That’s true unfortunately, but the state shouldn’t have any function
in a free market.  It should stick to a democratic and political direction.

S:  Implicit in the legalization of the drug market would be a change
in the corresponding laws.  Which of them do you expect to change first?

F:  The main problem is to clean out Congress, and then the leave the finer
regulations up to the states themselves.

S:  Who should produce the drugs?

F:  Those who can do it best — the pharmaceuticals industry.

S:  But they would only reluctantly produce products which cause addiction.

F:  What kind of nonsense are you telling me?  A big portion of the
pharmaceuticals on the market are addictive.  There are people who are
addicted to Aspirin, dependent on sleeping pills or won’t get by without
pain relievers.

S:  Where, in a legalized drug market, would the pharmaceuticals industry
obtain the necessary raw materials?

F:  That would be regulated by the free market.

S:  Can you imagine poppy fields in Kansas and Marijuana farms in

F:  Why not?  Marijuana cultivation still goes on despite massive
eradication programs of the Marijuana Cops.  Marijuana plays a key roll in
the U.S. drug politik.  Although not a single case is known of a Marijauan
overdose leading to death, and dozens of scientific studies support
Marijuana as harmless, the War on Grass has been declared.

S:  Has the price of Marijuana gone up according to the laws of the

F:  Yes.  Compared with other drugs, Marijuana got to be considerably
more expensive, and cocaine and and then crack got to be cheaper.
The drug prohibition pushed the consumers from one harmless drug to
a very, very dangerous one.

S:  Would you make a legal distinction between, for example, cocaine
and marijuana in a free-market drug economy?

F:  I would treat they just the same as alcohol and cigareettes.  It’s
no crime to buy Schnaps, but it is to drive drunk.  It would be the same
with drugs.

S:  To use the alcohol market as an example:  Do you see “Light Heroin”
or a “Cocaine for Beginners” in special displays in your drugstores?

F:  Why not, we also have Light Beer and low-alcohol Wine.  For both of
those there’s a public market.  In this discussion, though, there’s one
thing you shouldn’t forget:  the real winner in a legalized drug market
is the consumer.  The legal drugs would be much cleaner, their active
ingredients indicated on the side of the package, the dangers of overdose
given also…

S:  …and the number of addicts will rise steeply, my friend.

F:  There’s not one single empirical study to support that argument.
The opposite is the case.  The cessation of alcohol prohibition led
to no increase of alcohol consumption in the long run.  Actually the
number of alcohol-related deaths fell, because the products were cleaner.
And since Marijuana was legalized in Holland, Marijuana abuse has gone
down, and similar data comes out of Alaska, where for one year now the
possession of Marijuana for personal use hasn’t been punished.

S:  Such arguments seem not to impress the drug warriors.

F:  Admittedly, other arguments are much stronger.  It’s safe to say
that the American inner cities are going down the drain as a result
of the current drug politik:  10,000 surplus deaths in the drug world
every year, the prisons are overflowing, and there’s little time left
for the sentencing of other crimes.  That’s happening apart from the
fact that the number of non-drug related crimes is rising.  Or it’s
It’s almost impossible to name a single positive result of the war
on drugs, and I haven’t even touched on the affects on Peru, Columbia,
and Panama…

S:  …where the Bush Administration has expanded its anti-drug war to.

F:  A completely unjustifiable undertaking.  We’ve destroyed these lands
with our own own soldiers, helicopters, and SWAT teams just because we
couldn’t enforce our own laws at home.

S:  The legalization of the American drug market would have considerable
economic consequences for countries like Columbia and Peru.

F:  Assuredly.  With our politik we’ve left these states to the production
of agricultural products like marijuana and coca, which go against their
long-term interests.  If we were to legalize the consumption of drugs
tomorrow, by tomorrow afternoon the price of Cocaine would drop like a

S:  And 10,000 people would lose their jobs.

F:  Be careful when you talk about unemployment.  What the farmers in Peru
get for their coca leaves they can’t distinguish from what they’d get under
a legalization.  I would rather have the farmers stay in business so they
can put the raw ingredients up for sale at some reasonable price like our
farmers.  The ones who will lose their jobs will be those who earn massive
profits from the drug trade — the members of the cartels, the smugglers
and the pushers.

S:  Also standing to earn is the state, which would tax legal drugslike it
does alcohol and cigarettes.

F:  Sure.  Though giving the state a new income source is not my intention
when I advocate legalization.

S:  Since the decade-long War on Drugs has brought no visible success, does
it follow that powerful people in and behind the political scene are gaining
money and influence by preventing its success?

F:  There exists every conceivable reason to believe that people who earn
money from the drug market will do everything they can to ensure their
source of income.  This is no example of a conspiracy theory, but the
forseeable relationships of members of a certain branch of industry.  That
pertains to the drug baron no differently than automobile tycoon.

S:  Wouldn’t legalization also bring dismay to the professional prosecutors?

F:  The prosecutor and the prosecuted have a common interest in the
drug war.  Prohibition assures a good livelihood to those who prohibit
the drugs and to those who deliver the drugs.  That also goes for the
prosecutors.  Their estates are being well-furnished, their incomesraised.
Fame and good careers are assured for them.

S:  Now that is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory.

F:  Not necessarily.  The [“pits”] of corruption are documentable and
growing.  You can be sure that when there’s a big pot of gold out there,
that there will be people who want to have it and who will put all other
interests aside to get it.

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