"I Do Not Believe the State Has Any Right to Tell Me What to Put In My Head"

by Don Boudreaux on July 31, 2008

in Regulation

The great Milton Friedman, were he still alive, would turn 96 today.  This interview with him was conducted just prior to his death in 2006.  And here is the second part of the interview.  In it, Friedman makes a moral case for ending drug prohibition.

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{ 45 comments }

Matt July 31, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Some drugs, methamphetamine, are so damaging that after a few tries the user is no longer sane.

What is the free market solution for insanity?

Robinson July 31, 2008 at 1:45 pm

"Some drugs, methamphetamine, are so damaging that after a few tries the user is no longer sane."

This is nonsense on the order of "reefer madness."

Chris July 31, 2008 at 2:15 pm

Robinson –

http://www.drugabuse.gov/NIDA_Notes/NNVol17N1/Methamphetamine.html

What say ye?

I could go along with decriminalizing drug usage as long as (1) my tax money would never be used for drug treatment programs, welfare for drug users, health care for problems related to drug use, etc…. (2) fewer homeless drug would panhandle or bother me in any way, (3) there were appropriate safeguards to prevent drug users from doing anything while affected by drugs that could harm me or those who I care about, (4) there is a more effective mechanism for keeping drugs out of the hands of children than we have today (I favor execution for people who give drugs to kids — old-style hanging the evening after the trial.)

Decriminalizing drugs would have the effect of lowering their cost to users — the cash price would go down and people would no longer see the risk of jail as a cost. As a result, usage goes up. As a practical matter, increased drug use is a bad thing. (I presume that nobody on *this* blog will assert that the demand curve for any product, even currently illegal drugs, is vertical.)

Chris O'Leary July 31, 2008 at 2:17 pm

My opinion is that drugs reflect a mental health, and public health, problem rather than a criminal problem.

Criminalizing drugs doesn't do anything to address the root cause of the problem.

It doesn't address the question of why people are trying to self-medicate with illegal drugs.

Lee July 31, 2008 at 2:21 pm

I've seen nonsense before, Robinson, and I've talked with prison medical staff about meth.

That meth makes people insane is not in question. Your nonsense does not stand. Dismissed.

Methinks July 31, 2008 at 2:36 pm

What is the free market solution for insanity?

The evidence points to election to congress to sit on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Kevin July 31, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Chris you make the (arguable, but I won't argue it here) point that increased drug use is a bad thing. But even if you presume that as a cost, you should think of this question in terms of the net cost/benefit, the principal benefit being the avoidance of the legion of costs of prohibition. Do you not consider those costs real?

Less importantly, there is almost no way the cash price for drugs would rise should the market for these products be made free. While your understanding of demand is fine, the reality is that drugs cost virtually nothing to produce, transport, store, or market, and the lion's share of today's street price comes from constraints the government has placed on the supply curve. The only way the street price would rise post-prohibition is if the government taxed the goods so as to make them unprofitable below current levels, and even then the street price would rise only to the point at which it would be worth it to participate in the black market again.

Chris July 31, 2008 at 3:02 pm

Kevin –

There are certainly large costs of prohibition. But, the portion of those costs that I pay, through my taxes and through the increased risk of crime so druggies can get money to buy drugs, is low enough that I'm willing to pay them, when the alternative is that my current annoyance with second hand cigarette smoke is replaced by an annoyance with second hand pot smoke and used heroin needles littering sidewalks, and by the easier access my kids would have to drugs.

I didn't quite understand your second paragraph — if you re-read what I said, I was asserting that prices would go down, not up and, with lower prices would come increased consumption.

I forgot an item to my list above: if I could be sure that no idiot regulator would decide that drug use is a disability, and force me to hire a drug abusers.

Chris O'Leary July 31, 2008 at 3:30 pm

"Decriminalizing drugs would have the effect of lowering their cost to users — the cash price would go down and people would no longer see the risk of jail as a cost. As a result, usage goes up."

This is a very common assumption that I don't think is valid.

I think the fact that people know drugs are bad for them will keep most people for using them (except for those who for metal health reasons are desperate to use them as a substitute for legal drugs like antidepressants).

Look at cigarettes. Usage rates started to drop (due to health concerns) well before states started taxing them like crazy. I would argue that the increasing taxation of cigarettes has only solved 10 percent of the problem. Another 80 percent of the problem was caused by societal pressures.

Chris July 31, 2008 at 3:48 pm

C O'L —

(1) Many people would infer from decriminalization that drugs are not bad, or are at least not as bad as they thought.

(2) If what you say about cigarettes is true of drugs, then we don't really have much to worry about — wait for a few years and the problem will go away all by itself.

I'm curious what part of my statement you consider to be incorrect — is it that decriminalization would lower costs, or that drugs work on the same economic principles that govern every other product?

Oil Shock July 31, 2008 at 4:17 pm

Most of the drug related crime comes from the cost of supporting the habit. If prices go down, so will the crimes related to drug abuse. Many banned substances ( like marijuana ) are less harmful than drinking alcohol. Many women get into prostitution just to support their drug habit.

Cost of the war on drug is enormous. Ending the war on drugs will be a net positive.

Kevin July 31, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Chris I didn't read your second paragraph carefully and focused on the wrong thing. I don't think I said anything wrong there but it certainly didn't follow from your post.

On the "costs of prohibition" point, you may have fully considered this matter, but I would like to point out that the costs thereof are well in excess of the risk of crime and government outlays for enforcement. Two that come to mind are the wasted resources of incarcerated users and the massive inefficiency of the drug trade itself. And that's apart from the basic encroachment on liberty that prohibition is in the first place.

And about your kids, while I understand your fear about accessibility, as a practical matter I think you have it backwards. When I was in high school in the early 90's, it was far easier to get illegal drugs than it was to get regulated alcohol. Drug dealers don't card you and won't turn you in. But maybe the world's different now.

Sam Grove July 31, 2008 at 4:30 pm

Prohibition creates a market for criminal production and distribution of the prohibited substance.

Of course the price would go down if prohibition were lifted. Dealers would no longer see the profits they realize now and would no longer have any incentive to bribe law enforcement, etc. to carry on their business.

Some drugs, methamphetamine, are so damaging that after a few tries the user is no longer sane.

Sorry, but it takes more than a few "tries" to achieve mental disability from methamphetamine. The USAF even gives such drugs to pilots on long missions to maintain mental alertness.
Then too, users in the criminal market often don't know what they are getting, hence the incidence of overdosing.

You should also realize that many who are thought to be nuts because of drugs were already nuts before they got into drugs. Speed merely 'cranks up the volume' so to speak.

Danny July 31, 2008 at 5:48 pm

But I SWEAR, we're doing it for the KIDS!

This is the biggest load of BS out there. If we legalize drugs, it will be easier for kids to get their hands on them.

Being young, and having experience with the 'drug underworld', I can assure you, that it is easier to get drugs underage than it is to get alcohol.

Drug dealers don't ask for your ID, only the cash in your pocket. The whole 'we're protecting the kids' crowd is an emotional plea, not an informed one.

Danny July 31, 2008 at 5:50 pm

My second paragraph was mistyped. It should've been more along the lines of

It is a load of BS that if we legalize drugs, it will be easier for our kids to get them.

Mr. Econotarian July 31, 2008 at 6:05 pm

I submit that the drug war is directly responsible for an important barrier to human capital between races in the U.S. It is being enforced in a racist way (in terms of who is arrested, how long & if they do time, and where drug trade is most policed).

This dangerous cultural divide is leading to large populations which are being undereducated and not achieving well economically. Not to mention violence.

Simply put, we would have a richer country with greater economic growth and less dire poverty and single parent households without the drug war.

SteveO July 31, 2008 at 6:49 pm

Oh…

Based on the quote, I assumed he was talking about public schools.

Billy July 31, 2008 at 7:10 pm

I think Friedman answered the first question in his original Newsweek article. The fact that the drug prohibition increases the costs to users naturally brings about cheaper, and in this case, more dangerous substitutes. Just look at crystal meth or crack cocaine. I think Friedman was right that these cheap and dangerous drugs may not have materialized without the drug prohibition. There is a good chance that demand for these drugs would eventually subside if drugs were legalized. Who drinks bathtub gin anymore?

shecky August 1, 2008 at 2:03 am

One thing for sure. The War on Drugs is an absolute failure. After decades plugging away, billions spent, and continuing government expansion of power, I can walk out my front door, and within fifteen minutes, obtain any drug I want. I know where to go. I have a fairly good chance I won't suffer the wrath of law enforcement. I even have a rough idea how much it will cost. And nobody ever gets carded.

Such is progress.

LowcountryJoe August 1, 2008 at 6:15 am

Isn't the violence used to maintain and control the street ot "turf" a cost that society shoulders? And what of the law enforcement costs?

Chris August 1, 2008 at 9:28 am

Shecky –

I have yet to see anybody here rationally repudiate the idea that legalizing drugs would lower their costs, which, in turn, would increase their usage. To the extent that the drug war has increased the price of drugs to the user (which, it certainly has) and, thus, reduced the amount used, it has been a success.

I agree that there has been collateral damage. But, that's true of any war. I am just of the opinion that the collateral damage is worth the benefit.

As far as your assertion that you can get any drug you want within 15 minutes of your front door, recognize that many people do not live in such circumstances and do not want to.

Stretch August 1, 2008 at 10:26 am

As far as your assertion that you can get any drug you want within 15 minutes of your front door, recognize that many people do not live in such circumstances and do not want to.

I think you disregard just how widespread and accessible drugs are. Unless you literally live in the boonies, drugs are readily available to you.

Chris O'Leary August 1, 2008 at 10:57 am

"Most of the drug related crime comes from the cost of supporting the habit. If prices go down, so will the crimes related to drug abuse."

Precisely.

By increasing the price of drugs, you increase the severity of the crimes that are required to support one's habit.

Drug-related crime (e.g. stealing to get cash to buy drugs) is a major societal cost that few people seem to take into account.

Chris O'Leary August 1, 2008 at 11:01 am

"(1) Many people would infer from decriminalization that drugs are not bad, or are at least not as bad as they thought."

Maybe, but you could deal with this with public information campaigns. Cigarettes are legal, but everyone knows they are bad for you.

"I'm curious what part of my statement you consider to be incorrect — is it that decriminalization would lower costs, or that drugs work on the same economic principles that govern every other product?"

I'm not convinced that driving down prices would automatically increase usage. People know that there is a cost to drug use. Also, many highly addicted people are already maxed out in their usage. if they increased their usage any further, they'd OD.

Chris O'Leary August 1, 2008 at 11:06 am

"To the extent that the drug war has increased the price of drugs to the user (which, it certainly has) and, thus, reduced the amount used, it has been a success."

You've obviously never met a hard core stoner or an addict.

They use as much as they want.

It just costs them more (which in many cases leads to increased levels of petty or worse crimes).

vidyohs August 1, 2008 at 11:27 am

I rarely couch any of my posts in certainty but on this I am certain.

There is no evidence that there is a drug problem in society, all drug problems if they exist are purely personal and individual. Some others close to that individual may be affected in some manner but that affection is not the problem, the individual is.

The single most valuable statement Milton made was "the only way to decrease supply is to decrease demand." That statement states the impossibility of the drug war.

I have stated it similarly by stating that trying to kill consumer desire by closing markets is unrational and impossible.

The desire for the drug creates the supply.

How do you decrease the demand? I have ideas, rejected by muirduck on emotional grounds, but I do know this. Everything that has been done has been ineffective if not outright counter productive.

Our government and its supporters are insane because the official policy is doing more of the same thing over and over and always failing.

Chris August 1, 2008 at 11:40 am

Chris O'L

I wasn't really talking about hard-core stoners who, I agree, have a much more vertical demand curve than the rest of us. I suggest, though, that the high price does have an effect on whether non-users start and on the consumption by casual users.

Stretch –

I don't doubt that for common illegal drugs, there's probably somebody within a 15-minute drive who has some. It would take me a lot longer than 15 minutes to find that person. But, if they were legalized, I could go to my neighborhood drug store (2 minutes away) and buy some in 5 minutes.

Anyway, I've tales about how easy it is to get any drug, and I think they're often exaggerating, unless they live in a fairly dense urban area. Sometimes wildly.

Chris August 1, 2008 at 11:43 am

vidyohs –

You want to decrease demand? Easy — shoot drug users on sight. That will go a long way, but won't eliminate it completely — Islamic countries still occasionally cut the hands off thieves. At the other extreme, make drugs cheap and easy to get. Anywhere in between is, by definition, decreased demand. And, I suggest that our laws, right now, are in between.

vidyohs August 1, 2008 at 12:25 pm

Chris,

I see our thinking is on similar paths but not exactly parallel.

If an individual can use drugs, remain self sufficient, and not harm another or his property in anyway, who are we to say his drug use is a problem?

I could take a pro-active attitude towards using guns to solving our socialist(weed) problem; but, my inclination towards drug users is a more passive approach.

I think that legalization of drugs will take care of the price, especially if legalization goes all the way to over-the-counter in any commercial venue. However, and this is where the rational meets the emotional, I also believe that concurrent with that legalization government (supposedly acting in our name) should back out of compulsive accepting and treating of those with drug problems or drug ODs unless those individuals have the ability to pay for their own care in entirety. Otherwise they die. The only thing we would need to fund as a government would be body collection and disposal which are requirements much cheaper than our present position. Yes, I am deep country in my roots and my kind of people do not get emotionally distraught over taking care of business in the natural world.

Drug users make a choice that is their right, and it is my right to let nature takes its course with them.

Taking care of people who will not take care of themself is extremely counter productive, a financial and emotional drain, for all of us individually and as a group.

To those that say there should be an age restriction because if there isn't pushers will target kids. For what profit? There isn't a lot of profit in pushing something that nets only a pathetic minimum profit. I am ambivalent on this aspect and wouldn't fight an age restriction with too much vigor nor would I support it either. Leave that to parents and children.

My sole belief is that legalization and cheap availability would sort out the individual drug problem for all, but the rare minimum, in very short order.

By that I mean those drug users who are impulsive will OD in short order and will no longer be a problem. Those who do not OD and see how careless drug users are (not) treated will have real motivation to clean up their act and if they continue to use drugs to do so in a manner that is safe to them and us.

I believe that this would also make the body collection and disposal a steadily decreasing activity until it becomes minimal at worst.

We have criminal laws. Along with legalization of drugs and an official backing away from involvement in drug problems, there should be one more official view from both government and society; and, that is that drug use of any kind will not be accepted as an excuse for the commission of a crime.

Doing drugs would not be a crime. Harming another's person or property is a crime. We punish people for the crimes they DO commit not for the drugs they used.

Drug usage would, I believe, drop back to the levels it was in the past before the 20th century.

Sam Grove August 1, 2008 at 12:42 pm

The more addictive the drug, the greater the damage from its prohibition.

Danny August 1, 2008 at 12:55 pm

"You want to decrease demand? Easy — shoot drug users on sight."

Are you f'in kidding me? If you don't want drugs, move to Dubai. In Riyadh, they also just banned cats and dogs, because they are used by men to 'lure' women.

When you really talk with people who believe in the drug war, and you can get the totalitarian in them to come to the surface, it just exposes how totally moronic their position is. Chris here is willing to kill people if they use drugs. So the negative consequences of drug use aren't worse than outright murder? What if it was a hand-rolled cigarette that the authorities mistook for a joint, and shot first, asked questions later?

Chris, did you know alcohol consumption actually went up during prohibition? Did you know that per capita usage of marijuana is actually much HIGHER in the US than it is in Holland? If we legalized drugs tomorrow, every one of them, would you, Chris, go out and become a drug addict? Why, then, is it your assumption that everyone else will? Why do you have such a negative take on human nature? Have you ever wanted to do something just because someone told you that you couldn't?

Good luck on your campaign to decrease demand. I wish you luck on your adventure to mold human nature into your perfect vision.

Chris August 1, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Danny –

First of all, It's pretty clear that I was not suggesting that drug users should actually be shot, and it's petty to suggest otherwise. My point was that punishing an activity generally has a deterrent effect on that activity. You seem to be arguing ("have you ever wanted to . . .") that punishing an activity has the effect of increasing that activity, which is irrational and goes against experience.

Secondly, I do *not* "know" that alcohol consumption went up during prohibition, and neither do you. Certainly legal sales of alcohol went down, and there are no records of illegal sales, so there is just not much data available. At least one study indicates that consumption did actually go down. See http://www.nber.org/papers/w3675 .

vidyohs August 1, 2008 at 2:22 pm

I don't know, Chris. I took your comment:

"You want to decrease demand? Easy — shoot drug users on sight."

More as "tongue in cheek" than as a serious proposal.

Danny August 1, 2008 at 3:36 pm

Chris,

I took your comment at first glance a little too seriously. But the point is still the same. Where do you draw the arbitrary line in the sand? How about life sentences for drug users? The cost to society is definitely greater having to pay for someone who probably, at minimum, provided some net productivity to society, now is a total drain on the system.

As far as whether or not use went up during prohibition, there was a large spike in alcohol related arrests, and hospitalizations. The latter was likely due to the impurity of home made brews, which backs up the point made above by Billy, "The fact that the drug prohibition increases the costs to users naturally brings about cheaper, and in this case, more dangerous substitutes".

Also, the WHO has provided its most recent numbers on drug use in the US vs 16 other major countries, and the US, with some of the most punitive drug laws, came out on top (or bottom), having the highest per capita use.

http://www.alternet.org/drugreporter/90295/

So my 'irrational' idea that 'goes against experience' doesn't go against numbers. You should read Augustine, in his confessions, he talks a lot about human motivations, and how we don't always act 'reasonably'.

http://khermann.wordpress.com/2006/03/22/augustine-pears-the-mystery-of-sin-and-parenting-skills/

That is a good summary of the story that Augustine told along with a good breakdown. What might seem common sense, i.e., that punishment of a deed will make people do it less, is often not true.

Mises would say that none of us act irrationally, which in many ways I agree with, because it is impossible for you to judge whether or not someone else's actions are rational. So while you may find breaking the law to do drugs, and risking punishment as irrational, the drug user may not. He might not even be using drugs for the effects of the drugs. The thrill of 'breaking the law' is enough, especially if the chances of getting caught are small, which, inevitably they will be with the drug war.

vidyohs August 1, 2008 at 5:44 pm

Danny,

"The cost to society is definitely greater having to pay for someone who probably, at minimum, provided some net productivity to society, now is a total drain on the system."

Why should society bear the financial and emotional burden of someone who is a total drain on the system. Why not just let them die?

And, is there any proof that the vast majority of drug users could not still be productive if fear and illegality were removed from the equation so that they could use their drugs in ways and times that did not interfere with their public lifes?

I suggest that there is proof that drug users can moderate their usage to maximize their productivity, there is a huge number of alcohol users in our midst right now that use and produce. I am one. I am not an alcoholic, but I definitely use (I say as I sip from my glass of Cycles Gladiator Syrah). :-)

Danny August 1, 2008 at 5:53 pm

vidyohs,

ha don't necessarily disagree with you. I don't think drug users should be locked up. I think that most drug users are productive members of society, and their productivity would probably go up if laws were removed.

I agree with your whole statement. Mine was only a hypothetical posed to Chris. Where do you draw the line? What is the proper punishment for drug use if it is an offense against society?

I don't think it is, but Chris thinks otherwise.

vidyohs August 1, 2008 at 6:50 pm

I read Chris different.

I don't see this as a statement of his position:

"Anywhere in between is, by definition, decreased demand. And, I suggest that our laws, right now, are in between.
Posted by: Chris | Aug 1, 2008 11:43:46 AM"

I see it as his statement on the muddled state of our laws and the majority attitude towards drug users.

I could be wrong, I'll wait for something more definitive.

Martin Brock August 2, 2008 at 10:37 am

I could go along with decriminalizing drug usage as long as (1) my tax money would never be used for drug treatment programs, welfare for drug users, health care for problems related to drug use, etc….

But all of the law enforcement, incarceration and other drug war costs are fine with you? Your tax money pays for drug treatment programs and the rest now. Why do you want to pay for the drug war on top of it? More to the point, why do you want to force me to pay for it?

(2) fewer homeless drug would panhandle or bother me in any way, …

You want to pay to incarcerate these people instead?

(3) there were appropriate safeguards to prevent drug users from doing anything while affected by drugs that could harm me or those who I care about, …

So if anyone might strike your brother with a car after drinking a six pack, we must also wage a war against beer? How about a war against automobiles for that matter? Zero tolerance you know.

(4) there is a more effective mechanism for keeping drugs out of the hands of children than we have today (I favor execution for people who give drugs to kids — old-style hanging the evening after the trial.)

Why bother with a trial? You and your brownshirts can just lynch the bastard.

Martin Brock August 2, 2008 at 10:49 am

(1) Many people would infer from decriminalization that drugs are not bad, or are at least not as bad as they thought.

Like I'm not shooting heroin every day only because the good guys in the g'ment tell me it's a bad thing. I don't drink Draino either, but I can buy it by the case at Walmart. I don't drink a six pack daily either, though some people do. I don't have a canister of nitrous oxide by my bed, though I could legally obtain one.

Somehow, if Chris and his comrades don't threaten to lock me in a cage and deprive my children of my support for drinking Draino, assuming they don't feel like shooting me for it, I just can't be trusted to resist.

Sam Grove August 2, 2008 at 11:18 am

Who's irrational?

So some people don't want to pay for drug treatment programs but are willing to spend lavishly on prisons, guards, etc.?

The most powerful union in California is the prison guards. They love the war on drugs. Job security.

vidyohs August 2, 2008 at 9:16 pm

Sam,

Even stronger than the Teacher's Union?

http://reason.tv/video/show/60.html

After watching the video answer the question of, "Who in the entire video did you hate on sight? And, who talks too much like Chuckie Schumer, Methinks favorite senator."

Methinks August 4, 2008 at 8:52 am

I take it you're kidding about Chuckie Cheese Schumer being my favourite senator? Rangel is totally my favourite because he wants to drown – not just soak – the evil rich. We all know how well that's worked for the sainted poor in the past.

But that's totally off topic. I'm enjoying the debate from the anti-drug war side. I've never touched them in my life but not because the government told me they are bad and not because I didn't know three drug dealers in school and not because trading floors aren't littered with people who like to do coke now and then and know exactly where to get it.

vidyohs August 4, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Methinks,

Chuckie Schumer is the one single senator I would most like to bump into in a dark alley.

In my darkest vilest imagination I could not imagine you'd feel any different.

Methinks August 4, 2008 at 10:16 pm

Vidyohs,

If I could bump into Chuckie Cheese and Chuckie Strangle in a dark alley together, then I'll know there's a God.

I'm not a violent woman, but I can't help but wonder what sound their empty heads will make when one is smacked against the other. Like coconuts, but more hollow.

AST August 8, 2008 at 12:59 am

I was with you until this. I believe that, generally, the majority have the right to define the kind of society in which they will raise children. Society can't survive once it allows the immoral and self-destructive minority to impose itself on the rest in the name of freedom.

I've always admired Milton Friedman, but I believe the purpose of individual rights is to protect society from anarchy, which is the breeding ground of true authoritarianism. The true definition of freedom is having and keeping the maximum possible choices, but you can't keep that kind of freedom by making choices that limit your future choices. This is the basis of morality, and it's a paradox that libertarians fail to understand. As we lower obstacles to dangerous drugs, we place ourselves in danger of the airline pilot or the driver who is using legal drugs. In the tension between individual and state rights, there is a third party, society itself, which is not necessarily the same as the state.

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