The ongoing debate surrounding the war on drugs begs critical questions: Should the battle persist, or is it time for a strategic shift? Is drug legalization the solution? Legalization entails dismantling the barriers to consumption, sale, distribution, and production — something akin to how alcoholic beverages are treated.

In this article, we’ll dissect the failures of the war on drugs, seeking to uncover the factors that have led to its ultimate downfall.

In recent years, we have witnessed a wave of legalization of both the recreational and medicinal use of various drugs. Marijuana leads the discussions on this issue, perhaps because it is by far the most consumed illicit drug.

Currently, the majority of Americans live in states that allow the consumption of marijuana. Moreover, two out of every three Americans approve its legalization for recreational use — the highest proportion since records began.

The trend isn’t by any means confined to the United States. Canada paved the way by legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2019, with Luxembourg in Europe following suit in 2023. 

Across the Pacific, a bill has been introduced in Australia (where 74 percent of people support decriminalization) that would legalize the sale, production and use of recreational cannabis.

In Spain, cultivating marijuana for personal use on private property isn’t considered a criminal offense. Meanwhile, the Netherlands is globally renowned for its coffee shops, which serve as both dispensaries and consumption spaces for cannabis.

However, despite these recent strides, the debate remains complex and multifaceted. In the following discussion, we aim to delve into the diverse arguments that advocate for ending the war on drugs and embracing legalization.

Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell

Why liberals are in favor of drug legalization

The classical liberal economist Milton Friedman argued that all the war on drugs would achieve was to hand control of a billion-dollar market to criminals (see below for further details on this argument).

However, this is not typically the main argument used by liberals to oppose the war on drugs.

For a liberal, individual freedom is a principle to be upheld in all possible aspects of life in society. Thus, the consumption or sale of drugs, if done peacefully, should not be subject to state prohibition.

According to another celebrated liberal economist and philosopher, Ludwig von Mises, there is no doubt that drug consumption can bring harm to an individual’s life. However, it is not the role of the state to oversee private life. For Mises,

“Opium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments.”


“As soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail.”

Indeed, for Mises, if we accept that the state should have the power to regulate what an individual can consume, why should it stop at drugs? In his words,

“Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music?”

For liberal authors like Mises, a free society is incompatible with the prohibition of drugs. According to him, 

“A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.”

In the same vein, economist and social scientist Thomas Sowell argues that, “the law has too many urgent and important things to do to be used merely as a means of expressing disapproval There are plenty of other uses for police resources that are squandered in futile drug busts.”

Sowell further concludes that, “crusaders [against alcohol and other drugs] cannot accept the fact that they are not God, that they have neither the right nor the competence to run other people’s lives.”

In summary, the liberal argument in favor of drug legalization and the end of prohibition asserts that individuals have the right to decide how they want to live their own lives, and it is not the role of the state to oversee private behaviors. 

Furthermore, liberals warn that prohibiting drugs opens the door for the state to oversee and remove numerous other civil liberties.

Why economists are in favor of drug legalization

Economists who have studied the drug market tend to support its legalization. Some, including Nobel laureates like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, have strongly advocated for ending the war on drugs.

Others, like William Niskanen and George Shultz, served in conservative governments but maintained their firm stance against the war on drugs.

Economists who oppose the war on drugs often base their arguments on three points: prohibition benefits criminals, harms public health, and holds back the economic potential of legalization. We will address all three below.

Why economists believe that the war on drugs aids criminals and organized crime

Does drug trafficking weaken every time law enforcement seizes drugs and arrests traffickers? Not according to economic logic. Instead, drug trafficking is actually strengthened every time traffickers are arrested and drugs are seized.

This, according to Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker, is the “paradox of the war on drugs.”

Drug seizures decrease their available supply, but their demand remains almost intact, causing the price and profit margin for each sale to rise. 

Higher profit margins attract new players, that is, traffickers, to the market. This also increases funds for new weapons purchases, investments in the production and distribution of more drugs, and innovations to evade the police (Colombian traffickers, for example, even started manufacturing submarines).

This is the reason why the drug addiction rate has remained constant in the United States over the past 50 years, despite increasingly large investments in combating drug trafficking.

Source: The Atlantic

According to Milton Friedman, the problem is even more serious.

Friedman argued that by violently combating drug trafficking, the state engages in adverse selection, allowing only the most corrupt and violent traffickers to continue in this market. 

He saw it as an arrangement that directly benefits organized crime by having state action protect cartels and criminal factions from competition.

That’s why, back in 1968, Gary Becker already warned that, “just as the mobsters were pushed out of the alcohol market after the end of prohibition […] violent drug traffickers will be pushed out of the market with the decriminalization of drugs.”

Indeed, that’s what is happening in the United States after the recent wave of marijuana legalization across many states.

In 2013, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stated that marijuana trafficking at the Mexico-United States border had grown dramatically over the previous 10 years. The UN estimated that Mexican cartels were responsible for 60 percent of the marijuana consumed by Americans.

From then on, however, Colorado kicked off a wave of legalization for both marijuana production and recreational consumption. To the frustration of the cartels, this led to a remarkable 70 percent decrease in the price of marijuana in the illegal Mexican market!

The number of marijuana seizures at the border has also dropped by 80 percent, indicating that many Mexican traffickers have ceased trying to export the drug and compete with the legal market.

Across the United States, the mere presence of legalized marijuana dispensaries has been responsible for reducing crime in the neighborhoods where they are located. The authors of the study concluded that this was due to the disruption of the previously dominant illegal market.

Criminals transitioning into entrepreneurs is improbable, but this isn’t the focal point for economists. Indeed, the primary advantage of legalization is to cut off a billion-dollar funding source that fuels corruption among public officials, sustains paramilitary forces, and perpetuates violence.

Why economists believe drug legalization helps public safety

Public safety is directly affected by the war on drugs, but probably not in the way most people imagine.

Economists believe that resources are scarce. Therefore, every penny or minute invested in one activity cannot be invested in another—and this also applies to the police. The time and money spent on the war on drugs are time and money not spent combating crimes such as homicide, rape, and robbery.

In 2014, a trio of British economists put the theory to the test. They studied the experiment conducted by the London police, which, for a certain period, stopped combating marijuana trafficking in the Lambeth neighborhood. 

The economists concluded that the strategy was responsible for reducing the number (measured by the number of incidents) of other crimes and increasing police efficiency (measured by the number of arrests and cases solved) in their combat.

Another study conducted in 2017 also supports the theory.

In this study, a group of four researchers from the University of Bologna in Italy noticed the curious situation of two neighboring American states.

The state of Oregon rejected marijuana legalization in a referendum by a small margin. In turn, the state of Washington approved it, but also by a small margin. The result allowed for the study of two culturally similar populations that chose different public policies.

Comparing Washington to Oregon, economists concluded that legalization did not affect the number of homicides. However, the state of Washington saw a significant decrease in the number of rapes and robberies.

Why economists believe the war on drugs makes drugs worse and harms public health

The potency of drugs is commonly used as an argument for their prohibition. However, for economists, prohibition is directly responsible for increasing the potency of drugs available on the market.

It’s an established fact that, since the beginning of the war on drugs, the price of narcotics has been falling while their potency has been increasing. 

In the United States, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal, the prices of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana dropped by 81 percent, 80 percent, and 86 percent respectively, in real terms, between 1990 and 2007. Meanwhile, the purity of the product rose by 60 percent, 11 percent, and 161 percent respectively.

This occurs through a phenomenon called the potency effect.

Under normal conditions, a more potent drug tends to be more expensive than a less potent one. However, by increasing the overall costs of obtaining a drug, either through sudden price increases or the associated risk of arrest, the state distorts the opportunity costs of consuming a weaker drug, and incentivizes the user to consume more potent drugs.

In the words of Adam Martin, an economist at King’s College London, “the higher the punishment or the risk of being caught, the lower the opportunity cost of consuming a stronger drug compared to a weaker one.”

The potency effect also occurs on the supply side.

More potent drugs have lower transportation costs and can be more easily concealed from law enforcement authorities. This is why, during the Prohibition era in the United States, smugglers stopped selling beer and specialized in selling beverages with higher alcohol content, such as whiskey and other spirits.

However, the demand for cheaper drugs still exists. It is then met by “downgraded” versions of the more potent drugs. This is how whiskey turned into moonshine and cocaine gave way to crack. What was initially intended to prevent drug use ended up creating drugs that are even worse for public health.

How much would we gain by legalizing drugs worldwide?

Because it is an illegal market, it is difficult to estimate how many resources would stop circulating in the hands of criminals and instead flow into a legal market of entrepreneurs.

In the United States, the phenomenon of billionaires in the marijuana industry is not uncommon. It is expected that the value of the global marijuana market will reach $194 billion by 2026 and more than 1 million jobs could be generated if legalization takes place on a national level.

The legalization of marijuana has also served as a boost to countries’ battered coffers.

In Lebanon, the medicinal use of cannabis was legalized with an eye on tax revenue. Colorado, a pioneer in the legalization movement, has already raised over $1 billion in taxes from the cannabis market.

In Brazil, each year, according to the Legislative Consultancy of the Chamber of Deputies, the government could raise up to $1 billion in taxes with marijuana legalization while also reducing its prison system expenses by almost $200 million.

These resources generated by a legal cannabis market will not fuel an endless war, but instead the pockets of honest entrepreneurs.

Medicinal marijuana

Why we should at least legalize the medicinal use of drugs

For a long time, research into the medicinal use of drugs considered illicit was prohibited. International conventions and national classifications prevented doctors and scientists from obtaining drugs for research purposes.

In 2014, a manifesto, published by the editors of the prestigious Scientific American magazine, called for an end to the prohibition of research and permission for researchers to find out whether LSD, marijuana, ecstasy, and other psychoactives are capable of curing various disorders.

It wasn’t always like this though. In the period immediately before the start of the war on drugs, thousands of scientific papers were published linking the use of illicit drugs to the improvement of clinical conditions. According to Scientific American, LSD was used to make psychotherapies more efficient, MDMA was used as an adjunct in conventional therapy, and marijuana in various treatments.

The scientific pressure seems to have had an effect. In recent years, research into illicit drugs has been tolerated, and the results are already apparent. Below is a list of the possible medicinal uses of illicit drugs:

MDMA – Ecstasy

Studies indicate that, when combined with psychotherapy, the psychoactive substance can help treat severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Researchers believe that the drug may be effective in combating depression.


Doctors believe that the substance, found in magic mushrooms, can help areas of the brain that were previously disconnected to reconnect. It may be effective in combating depression.


Researchers are studying the use of marijuana as a treatment for a variety of different conditions, such as chronic pain, loss of appetite, glaucoma, epilepsy, muscle spasms, eating disorders, and more.

What are the medicinal uses of marijuana?

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy often experience severe nausea. Some patients do not respond to legalized medications but do respond positively to marijuana.

Stephen Jay Gould, a writer, biologist, and paleontologist who battled cancer for 20 years, stated

“Marijuana worked like magic. I didn’t like the ‘side effect’ which was the mental blur. But the crystal-clear joy of not having nausea — and not experiencing dread in the days leading up to treatment — was the greatest encouragement in all my years of chemotherapy.”

For HIV patients, marijuana is also an effective remedy. THC sharpens the sense of smell, causing the user to feel hungry. Eating well is essential for these individuals, as it restores lost weight – due to the cocktail of drugs to combat the virus – prolonging their lives.

Another case involves people suffering from some type of spasm. CDKL5 syndrome causes painful muscle spasms, and treatment with marijuana alleviates pain and reduces seizures. Like in the touching story of a mother with a daughter who has this condition: 

“…the desperation of seeing your daughter convulsing every day, at every moment, is so great that we decided to face it and bring it in whatever way necessary, even if it meant trafficking. And that’s what we did, the word is that, trafficking.”

Between 1999 and 2010, in US states that legalized medicinal marijuana, there was a 25 percent reduction in the number of deaths from opioid painkiller overdoses

This reduction occurred due to the substitution of drugs such as Vicodin and OxyContin — prescribed for patients with chronic pain — with marijuana-derived drugs. These are less toxic than the opioids present in common painkillers.

The moral argument against the war on drugs: Milton Friedman’s question

In 1991, the liberal economist Milton Friedman was interviewed by journalist Randy Page on “America’s Drug Forum.” In this interview, Friedman pointed out that, more than an economic issue, the war on drugs is a moral problem.

In his words,

“I’m an economist, but the economics problem is strictly tertiary. It’s a moral problem. It’s a problem of the harm which the government is doing.

I have estimated statistically that the prohibition of drugs produces, on the average, ten thousand homicides a year. It’s a moral problem that the government is going around killing ten thousand people. It’s a moral problem that the government is making into criminals people, who may be doing something you and I don’t approve of, but who are doing something that hurts nobody else. […]

I have to admit that the one negative feature of legalizing drugs is that there might be some additional drug habits. However, I want to qualify that in still another way.

The child who’s shot in a slum in a pass-by-shooting, in a random shooting, is an innocent victim in every respect of the term. The person who decides to take drugs for himself is not an innocent victim. He has chosen himself to be a victim. And I must say I have very much less sympathy for him. 

I do not think it is moral to impose such heavy costs on other people to protect people from their own choices.

In summary, for Milton Friedman, as a society, we should not accept the risk of shooting innocent children just to prevent individuals from making their own wrong choices.

The racist origins of the war on drugs

Harry J. Anslinger (1892-1975) was the first anti-narcotics commissioner in the history of the United States.

For almost four decades, Anslinger was responsible for shaping US drug policy. Despite being seen as a technician, his crusade was closely linked to his racism.

In his words,

“Most marijuana users are blacks, Hispanics, and Filipinos. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, comes from marijuana use.”

“Marijuana makes white women desire sexual relations with blacks.”

“…the primary reason to prohibit marijuana is its effect on the degeneration of races.”

“The herb makes ‘darkies’ think they are as good as white men.”

Even the transformation of “cannabis” into “marijuana” in the US had Anslinger’s hand in it. The idea was to make the Spanish name lead the American population to associate the drug with Mexico, inflaming xenophobic sentiments among the population.

Do you want to make a difference in ending the war on drugs? Ask your legislators to support a more sensible drug policy in the United States! Decriminalize drug possession nationwide! By doing so, we can focus on more effective approaches to drug addiction and reduce the negative impact of the war on drugs on individuals and communities.

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