Elders in the Schmoke Tradition

December 09, 1993

No one expected Dr. Joycelyn Elders' tenure as surgeon general to be marked by quiet discretion. She is outspoken and forthright, as her fellow Arkansan, President Clinton, knew when he appointed her. Even so, he may have been caught off guard by her remarks at the National Press Club this week. In reply to a question, she said she believed it would be worthwhile to examine whether legalization of drugs would cut the crime rate. The White House lost no time in saying that the issue would remain unstudied.

The reaction to Dr. Elders' suggestion recalls the initial outrage sparked when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke first raised similar concerns several years ago. At the time, he seemed to be committing political suicide. But he is still eager to discuss decriminalization -- not legalization -- and he is still a politician with a future. So we see no reason Dr. Elders should not easily survive the predictable calls for her resignation. She is a woman of strong convictions and the restless energy characteristic of people who are determined to make a difference. Already, she is making the nation take notice of issues like adolescent pregnancy about which she cares very deeply and knows a great deal. She is less familiar with the politics of drugs, as was evident in her careless use of the word "legalization."

Despite the quick response of the White House, Dr. Elders made a valid point. She suggested only that other ways of attacking the drug problem are worth looking into, that we don't know enough about what works and what doesn't. She's right. But the debate will go forward with or without administration support -- as was evident in the international drug policy conference that convened in Baltimore last month.

There may be a lot to learn from countries that take a less punitive approach to drugs. But any examination of those methods should also give serious attention to the efforts of thousands of community groups working to educate young people in this country about the dangers of drug abuse. Household surveys conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have found a significant drop over the past several years in the number of people who say they have used drugs in the past month, from 23 million people in 1985 to 11.4 million in 1992. That's still too much drug use, but it shows that anti-drug education can work.

Dr. Elders roiled the waters on a politically sensitive issue, but she also challenged Americans to face facts. Her words are worth heeding: "There are a lot of things that are sensitive subjects," she said, "and just because they're sensitive subjects does not mean that we should ignore them when they are destroying the very fabric of our country."

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