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June 2, 2005 - Forbes Com (US Web)

Milton Friedman: Legalize It!

By Quentin Hardy, Manager of the Silicon Valley Bureau, Forbes

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - A founding father of the Reagan Revolution has put his John Hancock on a pro-pot report.

Milton Friedman leads a list of more than 500 economists from around the U.S. who today will publicly endorse a Harvard University economist's report on the costs of marijuana prohibition and the potential revenue gains from the U.S. government instead legalizing it and taxing its sale. Ending prohibition enforcement would save $7.7 billion in combined state and federal spending, the report says, while taxation would yield up to $6.2 billion a year.

The report, "The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition," (available at was written by Jeffrey A. Miron, a professor at Harvard , and largely paid for by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a Washington, D.C., group advocating the review and liberalization of marijuana laws.

At times the report uses some debatable assumptions: For instance, Miron assumes a single figure for every type of arrest, for example, but the average pot bust is likely cheaper than bringing in a murder or kidnapping suspect. Friedman and other economists, however, say the overall work is some of the best yet done on the costs of the war on marijuana.

At 92, Friedman is revered as one of the great champions of free-market capitalism during the years of U.S. rivalry with Communism. He is also passionate about the need to legalize marijuana, among other drugs, for both financial and moral reasons.

"There is no logical basis for the prohibition of marijuana," the economist says, "$7.7 billion is a lot of money, but that is one of the lesser evils. Our failure to successfully enforce these laws is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in Colombia. I haven't even included the harm to young people. It's absolutely disgraceful to think of picking up a 22-year-old for smoking pot. More disgraceful is the denial of marijuana for medical purposes."

Securing the signatures of Friedman, along with economists from Cornell, Stanford and Yale universities, among others, is a coup for the MPP, a group largely interested in widening and publicizing debate over the usefulness of laws against pot.

If the laws change, large beneficiaries might include large agricultural groups like Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra Foods as potential growers or distributors and liquor businesses like Constellation Brands and Allied Domecq, which understand the distribution of intoxicants. Surprisingly, Home Depot and other home gardening centers would not particularly benefit, according to the report, which projects that few people would grow their own marijuana, the same way few people distill whiskey at home. Canada's large-scale domestic marijuana growing industry (see "Inside Dope") suggests otherwise, however.

The report will likely not sway all minds. The White House Office of Drug Control Policy recently published an analysis of marijuana incarceration that states that "most people in prison for marijuana are violent criminals, repeat offenders, traffickers or all of the above." The office declined to comment on the marijuana economics study, however, without first analyzing the study's methodology.

Friedman's advocacy on the issue is limited -- the nonagenarian prefers to write these days on the need for school choice, calling U.S. literacy levels "absolutely criminal...only sustained because of the power of the teachers' unions." Yet his thinking on legalizing drugs extends well past any MPP debate or the kind of liberalization favored by most advocates.

"I've long been in favor of legalizing all drugs," he says, but not because of the standard libertarian arguments for unrestricted personal freedom. "Look at the factual consequences: The harm done and the corruption created by these laws...the costs are one of the lesser evils."

Not that a man of his years expects reason to triumph. Any added revenues from taxing legal marijuana would almost certainly be more than spent, by this or any other Congress.

"Deficits are the only thing that keeps this Congress from spending more" says Friedman. "Republicans are no different from Democrats. Spending is the easiest way to buy votes." A sober assessment indeed.

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