Restoring the Stigma to Drug Use

November 21, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

The cost of manufacturing a kilo of cocaine in Colombia is $50, according to Dr. Gustavo de Greiff Restrepo, Colombia's attorney general.

Once the drug hits markets in this country, that $50 investment can fetch about $5,000. The hefty profit is one major reason Dr. Restrepo thinks that illegal drugs are here to stay, and that winning any kind of ''war on drugs'' is a pipe dream. His thinking is shared by many of the other officials who gathered in Baltimore last week for an international drug-policy conference.

Despite the vast resources devoted to fighting drugs, not a day passes that we don't see the awful toll drugs are taking on this society. No wonder many officials see an urgent need to talk about strategies to reduce the harm drugs cause to society.

Taken alone, this line of thinking has an aura of defeatism. It assumes the network of supply and demand is seamless and eternal, that there is a virtually unlimited supply of people willing to pay premium prices for illegal drugs that might entertain or lull them, but that can also incapacitate and even kill them. What if customers began to see drugs as dangerous and not worth the money? What if that cocaine from Colombia never found a buyer in Baltimore or Columbia or Ocean City?

Some anti-drug activists think it's possible to shrink the market for drugs. One such group, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, takes a classic Madison Avenue approach to the problem. It believes that attempts to persuade people that drugs are not worth the risk can significantly change drug-usage habits.

Founded in 1985 by advertising executives, the group draws its staff and a small army of volunteers from the communications industry -- marketing executives, ad creators, public-relations specialists and media types. Their goal is to ''denormalize'' drug use, to reinforce attitudes that stigmatize drugs as socially unacceptable.

The approach combines a tinge of moralism with a thoroughly American faith in the powers of advertising. If people can be persuaded to buy toasters and Twinkies and even pet rocks, then why can't they be persuaded not to buy drugs? The Partnership has some impressive statistics to prove the point.

In 1962, fewer than 4 million Americans had tried illegal drugs. By 1992, almost 80 million Americans had tried them. What happened? The Partnership's answer is simple: As a nation, we ''normalized'' the use of illegal drugs, creating in the process a pool of probably around 6 million people who are in various stages of addiction.

But attitudes aren't set in stone. Surveys now show a major shift in attitudes, accompanied by dramatic declines in drug use. Americans are recreating a social climate in which drugs are not seen as normal or harmless.

In numbers, that represents a huge drop in people who say they have used drugs in the past month -- from 23 million people in 1985 to 11.4 million people in 1992, according to household surveys conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Cocaine use has fallen by 78 percent, which prompts the question: Could some of the drug-related violence we're seeing stem from fierce competition spurred by a dramatically shrinking market?

If any one factor caused this reversal in trends, it seems to have been the death of Len Bias in June 1986. When an exceptionally talented young basketball player ready to begin a promising professional career dies from a cocaine overdose, the media pay attention. The tragedy sparked hundreds of stories about the dangers of drugs, and surveys of young people detected a significant increase in their awareness of the risks involved in drug use.

Clearly, public perceptions have changed. The Partnership can take some credit. Its clever ads -- like the picture of scrambled eggs with the caption, ''Your brain on drugs'' -- have caught the attention of millions of Americans.

But it's also the steady drumbeat of news stories, the proclamations of public officials and celebrities and -- especially -- the grass roots efforts of concerned parents and other citizens determined to make drugs unwelcome in their communities.

It's important to recognize the good news about drug use. But it's also important to admit the bad. Whatever your approach to drugs -- prevention and ''denormalization'' or harm reduction and ''medicalization'' -- it is clear that current policies short-change the need for treatment.

With 6 million or so Americans in trouble because of drug use, adequate treatment programs are essential to reducing drug-related crime and violence.

That we can all agree on.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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