On The Drug Issue, We're Still in Denial

GLEN McNATT

October 30, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

Many people are saying Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's recent request for National Guard troops to quell the District's soaring homicide rate amounted to a confession of failure.

A lot of those people are the same ones who denounced Baltimore's Mayor Schmoke a few years ago when he suggested decriminalizing drugs. To do so, they claimed, would be a ''confession of failure.''

ZTC In both cases, however, ''confessing failure'' was exactly the right thing to do. We are unlikely to make any progress against the problems that are eating away at the core of urban America until we acknowledge that the policies we have pursued so far just haven't worked. One reason we are stuck with them now is precisely because we seem unable or unwilling to admit that they have failed.

Ms. Kelly and Mr. Schmoke represent polar extremes on a continuum of options. Drugs and the drug trade are the engine that is driving the current epidemic of homicidal violence. The crime problem and the drug problem are inextricably intertwined.

Both Ms. Kelly's and Mr. Schmoke's proposals may be confessions of failure, but adopting one or the other would lead to very different outcomes.

Ms. Kelly's call for the National Guard is in effect a plea for further extension of the present law-enforcement approach. Mr. Schmoke's idea of decriminalizing drugs would stop the crime engine by cutting off its fuel supply.

There are many practical problems with using the National Guard in what is essentially a policing role. Guardsmen are neither trained nor equipped for police work. When they are employed to quell domestic unrest, it is always for a limited period only. Mayor Kelly's proposal is open-ended, an invitation to the dreaded ''quagmire'' syndrome.

More unsettling, though, is that not a shred of evidence exists that such a proposal would work. This may seem counter-intuitive until one realizes that calling up the National Guard would be the equivalent of hiring more police. But Washington has already increased the size of its police force, and the violence continues unabated.

That is because the kind of drug-driven violence we are confronted with is no more amenable to law- enforcement solutions than was the crime wave that attended the liquor trade during Prohibition. Elliott Ness and his Untouchables finally managed to put away Al Capone (for tax evasion, of all things!), but people didn't stop shooting each other until Prohibition was repealed.

It probably is politically impossible to legalize drugs in the same way the repeal of Prohibition legalized alcohol consumption. It is possible, however, to take the profits that fuel the violence out of the drug trade by giving addicts a legal means of supplying their habits.

Critics of Mr. Schmoke's proposal like to dismiss the difference between legalization and decriminalization as a mere semantic quibble. But the terms actually mean quite different things in practice.

Legalization means anyone could go into a store and legally buy whatever drug he wished. Decriminalization means that a doctor could prescribe any of the addictive drugs, and that an addict could then get that prescription filled legally at a pharmacy or clinic.

The difference between the two approaches is roughly comparable to the difference in the way we presently treat marijuana and morphine.

It is illegal to possess, consume or sell marijuana under any circumstances. But morphine is readily available as a prescription medication, even though it is highly addictive. Because morphine consumption has been decriminalized, however, there are no gangs of armed youths shooting up street corners in order to protect their share of the market.

Mr. Schmoke's suggestion that we treat other addictive drugs the same way stems from the recognition that addiction ought to be treated as a public-health problem rather than as a criminal-justice matter.

Human nature being what it is, the likelihood is that no matter what we do some people will become addicts, just as some people become alcoholics. That's unfortunate, but it would be futile to try to lock up every drunk along with the person who sold him the drink. We've already discovered that just isn't possible with alcohol, and it's time we 'fessed up to the same thing about illegal drugs. Getting out of denial is the first step toward recovery.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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