Bad drug reaction: Whatever we do, let's not study it

December 13, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Joycelyn Elders, the surgeon general, is under fire again. She did a bad thing: She told the truth.

She said that the violent behavior associated with drug trafficking is at least as deadly as the drugs themselves. As a remedy, she suggested that we might study -- yes, simply study -- the possible legalization or decriminalization of drug use and treat it as a health problem instead of a legal problem.

You know the reaction.

Politicians fought each other to get in line to say she should be fired.

The president shook his head and said that, although he wouldn't fire her, he violenty disagreed with the notion of studying any alternative that included legalizing drugs.

Because?

Because drugs are bad.

Is that simple enough for you? It might be too simple.

When people say drugs are tearing this country apart, they don't mean drugs. They mean the attendant violence. They mean the drug wars. They mean the drive-by killings. They mean the guns that fuel the dying. They mean burned-out neighborhoods. They mean children held hostage. They mean streets that belong to the dealers. They mean addicts who kill in order to pay for their next fix.

They don't really mean drugs themselves.

In this country, we have many drugs, including some that are legal. We package these legal drugs brightly and then sell them in newspapers and magazines and on TV. It's a thriving industry.

Cigarettes, of course, contain a highly addictive drug. About a million people a year die from cigarettes. Thank you, Joe Camel.

And what of alcohol? There are an estimated 10 million alcoholics in this country. That's 10 million people who are addicted to alcohol, the drug. You know it's a drug. Ask any drug counselor. Go to any drug-treatment center. Alcoholics and cocaine-abusers (there are maybe 2 million of them) are treated side by side.

You want a scary statistic? According to the Center for Science in the Pubic Interest, a child will see 100,000 televised beer commercials by the time he or she can legally order a drink.

Drugs? We love 'em.

Illegal drugs are different. They're different because they're illegal. Some drugs, of course, are more dangerous than others, but few drugs cause more havoc than alcohol. Just take a look at the drunk-driving statistics.

Once, as you'll recall, alcohol was made illegal. It didn't take. There was a thriving underground alcohol market, similar to today's drug market. If you've seen any Edward G. Robinson movies, you know about the violence of the era. Finally, Prohibition was lifted, and some of the violence went away.

Elders and others, ranging from Kurt Schmoke to William F. Buckley, wonder if some of the violence might go away upon legalizing drugs.

I don't know the answer. But I do know that it's disingenuous to suggest that Elders is "soft" on drugs. Or that she encourages drug use. Everyone knows that's not true. Show me any adult who champions drug use these days. The '60s are long dead.

It was in the '60s, though, that drugs became an important cross-generational issue. All politicians who came of age in that era must appear especially anti-drug lest they be accused of having been college-age potheads. These politicians either didn't inhale or they "experimented" with drugs, only to find they didn't like them. That's the safe line.

And it's a line that hinders the discussion today. Let's be honest instead. Drug use isn't immoral, it's unhealthful. It's bad for you. It's stupid to take drugs.

Many legal things are bad for you, too. As a result, we now smoke fewer cigarettes and we eat less fat. Baltimore is attempting to attack the alcohol problem by banning billboards advertising liquor.

What if we took on drugs as a health issue? What if we legalized drugs but, as a culture, continued to marginalize their use? What if, as a result, there were a sharp decline in violence?

Would legalizing drugs be worthwhile if it meant reclaiming our streets?

This discussion is not about the merits of drug use, but rather about whether what we're doing today is working. I think we can agree it's not. More prisons haven't worked. Mandatory sentences haven't worked. Killing Colombian drug lords hasn't worked.

We need to cut the posturing and keep looking for something that does work. It's hard to see how a study could hurt.

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