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The Writings of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman

A War We're Losing

By Milton Friedman

From: The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, March 7, 1991

While we have just finished a war abroad, we are still engaged in one at home-the war on drugs. There was great concern-and properly so-about the casualties in the Gulf war. There seems to be far less concern about the casualties in the war on drugs, even though they are far more numerous than the casualties suffered during the Gulf war's entire course.

The war on drugs has many effects, some good, more, in my opinion, bad. I propose here to concentrate on a single effect, the cost in human lives.

The accompanying chart plots the homicide rate per l00,000 population from 1910 to 1989. (All figures are drawn from the "Statistical Abstract of the United States," and "Historical Statistics of the United States." ) There was a steady rise through World War I, and then an even steeper rise when the 18th Amendment prohibiting the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages became effective. That rise peaked in 1933, the year in which the Prohibition amendment was repealed. The homicide rate then fell, at first rapidly, and then more slowly to the mid-1950s, except for a brief but sharp rise during and after World War II-repeating the behavior during World War I. In the mid-1960s, the homicide rate started to rise, and then soared after the war on drugs was launched by President Nixon and continued by his successors.

The second series in the chart, the number of prisoners received, for which data are readily available to me only from 1925, confirms the effect of both alcoholic prohibition and drug prohibition on recorded criminality, though unlike the homicide rate it has recently risen to far higher rates than during the 1930s.

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The accompanying table shows the average rate of homicides and of prisoners received by decades from the 1950s on. The difference between the homicide rate in the 1980s and in the 1950s, adjusted for the current population of the U.S., implies almost 11,000 extra homicides per year; compared with the 1960s, more than 8,000. Similar estimates for prisoners received come to more than 80,000 extra prisoners compared with the 1950s, nearly 90,000 compared with the 1960s.

The Crime Boom

Average Rates per 100,000 population

Decade Homicides Prisoners Received
1950-59 4.8 47.2
1960-69 5.7 43.7
1970-79 9.5 54.3
1980-89 9.1 79.7*


Sources: Historical Statistics of the United States; Statistical Abstract of the United States

Granted that the whole of the difference may not be attributable to the war on drugs. Many other things were going on during the decades from the '50s to the '80s. However, there seems little doubt that the war on drugs is the single most important factor that produced such drastic increases. Even if only half the effect is attributed to the war on drugs, 5,000 extra homicides a year and 45,000 extra prisoners is a high cost, and that price does not include the lives lost in Colombia, Peru and elsewhere, because we cannot enforce our own laws, or the lives lost through adulterated drugs in a black market, or the culture of violence, disrespect for the law, corruption of law enforcement offi- cials and disregard of civil liberties unleashed by the war on drugs.

No doubt there have been some favorable effects of the war on drugs. There does appear to have been a considerable reduction in the casual use of drugs. But it is hard to believe that the good effects come anywhere close to being large enough to justify the human cost of the war on drugs in terms of lives lost and lives destroyed.