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Milton Friedman 2

“More police, more jails, more stringent penalties. Increased efforts at interception, increased publicity about the evils of drugs — all this has been accompanied by more, not fewer, drug addicts; more, not fewer, crimes and murders; more, not less, corruption; more, not fewer, innocent victims…

Legalizing drugs is not equivalent to surrender in the fight against drug addiction. On the contrary, I believe that legalizing drugs is a precondition for an effective fight. We might then have a real chance to prevent sales to minors; get drugs out of the schools and playgrounds; save crack babies and reduce their number; launch an effective educational campaign on the personal costs of drug use — not necessarily conducted, I might add, by government; punish drug users guilty of harming others while ‘under the influence’; and encourage large numbers of addicts to volunteer for treatment and rehabilitation when they could do so without confessing to criminal actions…

I do not believe, and neither did [the American founders], that it is the responsibility of government to tell free citizens what is right and wrong. That is something for them to decide for themselves. Government is a means to enable each of us to pursue our own vision in our own way so long as we do not interfere with the right of others to do the same. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, ‘all Men are… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the Governed.’ In my view, Justice Louis Brandeis was a ‘true friend of freedom’ when he wrote, ‘Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasions of their liberty- by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning. but without understanding.’”


Pulled from Milton Friedman’s 1989 WSJ article “Bennett Fears ‘Public Policy Disaster’ — It’s Already Here!”. You can find it in his seminal collection of writings on public policy Why Government Is the Problem.

I am certainly in Friedman’s liberty-centric camp. Nonetheless I think arguments against the drug war can rest securely on several other foundations, including the fact that this generations-long “war” has been a fundamentally disruptive, rather than pacifying, force for our society. Johann Hari, whose new book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the Drug War is next on my reading list, shared the following insight about one of the most orderly people on the planet, the Swiss:

Switzerland, a very conservative country, legalized heroin for addicts, meaning you go to the doctor, the doctor assigns you to a clinic, you go to that clinic every day, and you inject your heroin. You can’t take it out with you. I went to that clinic — it looks like a fancy Manhattan hairdresser’s, and the addicts go out after injecting their heroin to their jobs and their lives.

I stress again — Switzerland is a very right-wing country, and after its citizens had seen this in practice, they voted by 70% in two referenda to keep heroin legal for addicts, because they could see that it works. They saw that crime massively fell, property crime massively fell, muggings and street prostitution declined enormously…

The arguments that work well in persuading the people we still want to reach are order-based arguments. I think the Swiss heroin referenda are good models for that. Basically, what they said was drug war means chaos. It means unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown users, all in the dark, in our public places, filled with disease and chaos. Legalization is a way of imposing regulation and order on this anarchy. It’s about taking it away from criminal gangs and giving it to doctors and pharmacists, and making sure it happens in nice clean clinics, and we get our nice parks back, and we reduce crime. That’s the argument that will win. And it’s not like it’s a rhetorical trick — it’s true. That is what happens.

Hari continues, reflecting on the even more dramatic example presented by the Portuguese experiment:

In 2000 Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of extraordinary. Every year they tried the American way more and more: They arrested and imprisoned more people, and every year the problem got worse…

They convened a panel of scientists and doctors and said to them (again I’m paraphrasing), “Go away and figure out what would solve this problem, and we will agree in advance to do whatever you recommend.” They just took it out of politics. It was very smart…

The panel went away for a year and a half and came back and said: “Decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But” — and this is the crucial next stage — “take all the money we used to spend on arresting and harassing and imprisoning drug users, and spend it on reconnecting them with society and turning their lives around.”

Some of it was what we think of as treatment in America and Britain — they do do residential rehab, and they do therapy — but actually most of it wasn’t that. Most of it, the most successful part, was really very simple. It was making sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. It consisted of subsidized jobs and microloans to set up small businesses.

Say you used to be a mechanic. When you’re ready, they’ll go to a garage and they’ll say, “If you employ Sam for a year, we’ll pay half his wages.” The microloans had extremely low interest rates, and many businesses were set up by addicts.

It’s been nearly 15 years since this experiment began, and the results are in. Drug use by injection is down by 50%, broader addiction is down, overdose is massively down, and HIV transmission among addicts is massively down.

Compare that with the results in the United States over the past few years.

Like I said, I’m on the same page as Friedman. These guys are too: