STANFORD -- 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
"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
- 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."
- 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.
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"?
- Disproportionate imprisonment
of blacks. Sher Hosonko, at the time
Connecticut's director of addiction
services, stressed this effect of drug
prohibition in a talk given in June
"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."
- Destruction of inner cities. Drug
prohibition is one of the most important factors that have combined to
reduce our inner cities to their present
state. The crowded inner cities have a
comparative advantage for selling
drugs. Though most customers do not
live in the inner cities, most sellers do.
Young boys and girls view the swaggering, affluent drug dealers as role
models. Compared with the returns
from a traditional career of study and
hard work, returns from dealing
drugs are tempting to young and old
alike. And many, especially the young,
are not dissuaded by the bullets that
fly so freely in disputes between competing drug dealers -- bullets that fly
only because dealing drugs is illegal.
Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and
Bloods epitomize this one.
- Compounding the harm to users.
Prohibition makes drugs exorbitantly expensive and highly uncertain in
quality. A user must associate with
criminals to get the drugs, and many
are driven to become criminals
themselves to finance the habit. Needles, which are hard to get, are often
shared, with the predictable effect of
spreading disease. Finally, an addict
who seeks treatment must confess to
being a criminal in order to qualify
for a treatment program. Alternatively, professionals who treat addicts must become informers or
- Undertreatment of chronic pain.
The Federal Department of Health
and Human Services has issued reports showing that two-thirds of all
terminal cancer patients do not receive adequate pain medication, and
the numbers are surely higher in
nonterminally ill patients. Such serious undertreatment of chronic pain
is a direct result of the Drug Enforcement Agency's pressures on
physicians who prescribe narcotics.
- Harming foreign countries. Our
drug policy has led to thousands of
deaths and enormous loss of wealth in
countries like Colombia, Peru and
Mexico, and has undermined the stability of their governments. All because we cannot enforce our laws at
home. If we did, there would be no
market for imported drugs. There
would be no Cali cartel. The foreign
countries would not have to suffer the
loss of sovereignty involved in letting
our "advisers" and troops operate on
their soil, search their vessels and
encourage local militaries to shoot
down their planes. They could run
their own affairs, and we, in turn,
could avoid the diversion of military
forces from their proper function.
Can any policy, however high-minded, be moral if it leads to widespread corruption, imprisons so
many, has so racist an effect, destroys our inner cities, wreaks havoc
on misguided and vulnerable individuals and brings death and destruction to foreign countries?
Milton Friedman, the Nobelist in economics, is a senior research fellow at
the Hoover Institution.
A trubute and