It's Time to Face the Drug Problem -- in the Mirror

JONATHAN POWER

August 28, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- The other day, my 23-year-old daughter arrived back in London from an eight-month stint as a sports instructor in Aspen, Colo. To her shock and dismay, she learned that while she was in America, one of her London girlhood chums was put away for six years for dealing in cocaine.

Cocaine is everywhere in London. She knows that and so do I. But even by her standards, what she saw in Aspen was an abundance that the Cornucopians of London couldn't match in their wildest dreams.

In her opinion, and I couldn't find a credible argument to dissuade her, the police of Aspen must be privy to the marijuana-cocaine life-style, otherwise so plentiful a trade could not survive relatively unmolested.

This is common sense. But we are not dealing with common sense. We are dealing with hypocrisy. Hypocrisy on such an immense scale that the outsider (an outsider to drug taking, I mean to make clear) wonders what sustains the convoluted thinking apparent in the Bush Administration. It is the morality of the Pharisee.

Nothing made that more clear than watching the Republican National Convention. Whatever happened to the now non-existent ''drug war,'' promised at the last election?

How did the Republicans have the nerve to tear apart the Democrats for not believing in ''family values''? It has become clear that the ''drug war'' never bit the bullet for one reason. It would have meant filling the jails of America to overflowing with the sons and daughters, friends and relatives of George Bush's would-be voters.

It is a wonderfully sick game to imply that drugs are foremost a problem of America's ghettos and the merciless, turf-seeking hoods of the street corners. Drugs are right at home with many of the people you share a meal or play tennis with.

The political quackery, tragically for those concerned, doesn't stop at home. George Bush has been consistent in defining his priorities for pursuing the ''drug war'': It has to be fought at ''source,'' where the coca leaf is grown and cocaine is manufactured and distributed.

Yet every year of the last four, cocaine, and now heroin are shipped to America in ever larger quantities, the criminal networks become more powerful and invulnerable and the institutions of government in countries of production -- Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Thailand, Burma and Afghanistan -- become more compromised, corrupted, beleaguered and overwhelmed by an enemy that has the financial resources and murderous intent to do whatever is needed to maintain its freedom of maneuver.

The last six months have made clear that the tentacles of the drug cartels have spread to Europe. The Italian government is reeling before the punches of a rejuvenated Mafia, which has used its alliance with the South American godfathers to do even better what it has always done well, corrupt the innermost and vital sanctums of the state.

The rot is spreading through Eastern Europe, where vulnerable governments and strong gangsters are an unequal match.

This is not just to point the finger at America, largest customer for marijuana, cocaine and heroin though it be. Many of the European countries are co-conspirators in U.S. policy, in particular Britain, France, Spain and Italy.

Nevertheless, last year the European Community quietly appointed the ''Committee of Enquiry on Drug Trafficking'' that could, perhaps, be the beginning of a more sensible European policy -- if member governments decide to pay attention.

The committee report concluded: ''Drug addiction and misuse should primarily be treated as a subject of health and welfare, and not as one of police and justice. Possession of illicit drugs in small quantities for personal use should not be considered a criminal offense.''

If this policy were implemented in Europe and America tomorrow, the drug gangs would be on their backs the day after, the authorities of law and order would regain the upper hand, the courts their strength and the political system would be purged of an important slice of its hypocrisy and humbug.

Prohibition creates the biggest problem we face -- the criminal cartels. The other problem, the effect of too much drug taking, is relatively minor in comparison. If we look at the mortality rates, drug abuse deaths do not approach those of drinkers, smokers and drivers.

An official British report noted that, ''We find ourselves in agreement with the conclusion reached by the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission appointed by the Government of India (1893-1894) and the New York Mayor's Committee on Marijuana (1944) that long-term consumption of cannabis in moderation has no harmful effects.''

Much informed medical opinion today would say the same thing for cocaine, though the ''moderation'' should be more moderate.

No drugs, including nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, are good for our health. If we are sensible, we shouldn't use them. But the law, while restricting their use, should never dare outlaw them.

Hypocrisy, they say, is the homage that vice pays to virtue. That is true. But for the luxury of indulging in that, merely to win elections, we are going to pay a terrible price.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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