Drugs and illness

December 16, 1991

If any confirmation were needed of the wisdom of state Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission chairman Dr. Neil Solomon's call for emphasizing the public health aspects of drug abuse, one need look no farther than the tragic case of the Tampa Buccaneers' Dexter Manley, who quit pro football last week after failing an NFL drug test for the fourth time.

The most poignant aspect of Manley's fall lay in the fact that he had already been suspended for a year in 1989 after testing positive for drugs, had been undergoing thrice-weekly NFL-sanctioned drug testing since his reinstatement and undoubtedly knew any drug use would be swiftly detected -- and end his career. Yet so overwhelming was his addiction that he was apparently powerless to resist the fiendish lure.

Few would call for jailing Manley for his addiction; the compulsion that drove him to destroy himself grew not out of any criminal intent but from a profound mental and physical disorder that deprived him of control over his actions. Addiction is an illness that should be recognized as such and treated -- not punished. It's easy to see that when sports stars are the victims, but the law leaves little room for such distinctions for millions of ordinary people whose lives also have been ruined by drugs.

Four years ago Mayor Kurt Schmoke stimulated a national debate by suggesting that the problem of drug abuse might be dealt with more effectively if it were treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice matter; the mayor was roundly denounced. That Maryland's top drug abuse official is echoing those ideas indicates that, though attitudes have changed at a glacial pace, the message may finally be getting through.

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