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Milton Friedman on legalising dope

Commentator Shawn pointed me toward this marvellous interview with Milton Friedman in America’s Drug Forum. Friedman’s argument for the legalisation of all drugs is not an argument I agree with but the source of disagreement is empirical not ideological.

Friedman acknowledges that the single adverse effect of legalisation may be to increase demand. I would prefer to say will almost certainly be rather than may be given that illegality increases user costs considerably in terms of health risks, legal risks and even in terms of direct price effects. That is the key empirical point of disagreement. I suspect Friedman would not quibble on this point – he would argue that the harm avoided through legalisation (in terms of reduced crime and health costs) would more than compensate for costs associated with more use.

But I think argument reflects mainly on the US legal system where penalties toward drug users are excessively severe. Prison sentences should, in my view, never be the type of penalty that is applied to illicit drug users. In addition comprejhensive health services should also be available to illicit drug users. You should not use death probabilities as a disincentive to use.

I find Friedman’s suggestion that legalisation would encourage use of less dangerous drugs to be pure conjecture. In countries where opiates have been legal a significant fraction of the population have ended up addicted. The more dangerous drugs (cocaine, heroin) are pleasurable – if people have access to them they will use them.

Friedman’s counterargument would be that drug use involves self-inflicted pain. He is much more concerned with protecting other people who suffer harmful effects from prohibitions. He claims that drug prohibitions kill 10,000 innocent Americans each year. Thus the drug issue is primarily a moral rather than an economic issue with government perpetuating the immorality by killing 10,000 people per year.

A fascinating film clip by an economist I admire more than most. It is only a half-hour clip – please take a look and if you can find the time report your observations here.

1 comment to Milton Friedman on legalising dope

  • Shawn

    Doesn’t friedman say less dangerous forms of the drug, not less dangerous drugs? So instead of free-basing cocaine they might take a cocaine pill, drink coca wine, or coca tea?

    In countries where opiates are legal do most users shoot heroin or smoke opium…or eat opium?

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