THE suggestion that narcotics be decriminalized, so widel...

Salmagundi

June 09, 1993

THE suggestion that narcotics be decriminalized, so widel rejected when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke voiced it several years ago, is heard more and more frequently among thoughtful observers. Now the London Economist leads off a recent issue with a cover piece, "Bring Drugs within the Law."

Less than a century ago, it notes, a distinguished British doctor warned that drinking tea caused an "extremely nervous semi-hysterical condition." And a half century ago the American Journal of Nursing warned that a pot-smoker "will suddenly turn with murderous violence upon whomever is nearest to him."

The esteemed British weekly suggests we are still a little confused about some things we ingest. Tea and marijuana are fairly harmless, it says, but tea is legal and pot is not. Tobacco and cocaine are harmful; tobacco is legal and cocaine is not.

The toll narcotics take in crime and ravaged lives is not discounted by the Economist. "Yet most people still balk at exploring ways in which a legal regime might undermine such effects," it comments. Addiction to cigarettes is probably "the chief avoidable cause of death in the world," and alcohol dependency ruins many lives, the journal says. "Yet here the idea of dissuasion within the law is broadly accepted."

A possible approach would be the regulated sale of drugs, starting with the softest, through strictly regulated outlets. This would also allow for quality control, which would remove dangerous adulterated drugs from the street markets.

"Such legalization would not magically dispense with the need for policemen, but it would make the needed policing more manageable," the Economist says.

"Taxes raised on what is reckoned to be the world's largest untaxed industry would help government spend money on treatment and education, which would do more good than the billions currently spent on attempting to throttle the criminal supply of drugs of all sorts."

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