Surrender on drugs? Bad advice from our top doctor

December 16, 1993|By A. M. Rosenthal

THE SURGEON general of the United States is giving the cause of narcotics legalization the biggest boost it has ever received in America.

Dr. Joycelyn Elders thinks that legalization of narcotics would reduce crime and generally is so impressed with the idea that she wants "studies" to be made.

Studies" is a pretty word for the road to legalization. The only further study with any meaning would be to see how it works in the U.S. -- buying, selling and using narcotics, without penalty.

Maybe her home state of Arkansas might decide to volunteer. Or maybe Arkansans and other sensible Americans will decide instead that her naivete, at best, about drug legalization makes her unfit to be chief medical officer of the United States.

Bill Clinton made her state director of health while he was governor of Arkansas. As president he made her surgeon general.

The White House says the president is still against legalization, but that Dr. Elders is an outspoken sort who can be expected to pop out with ideas of her own.

But didn't they ever talk about drugs, Clinton and Dr. Elders, those years in Arkansas when she was state health director? Or when she was considered for surgeon general, did anybody at all probe into her attitudes about drug control -- or drug surrender?

As long as he keeps her on the job, those questions will work against the president. That's a pity, because he is having a tough enough time already showing himself as a hot anti-drug leader.

Morally, forgive the sardonic word, legalization is a bottom-line approach to drug abuse: fighting drugs is difficult and expensive, we are losing, so let's give in.

If they want to use drugs, save money and trouble by letting them do it. Crime will decrease because drug gangs will go out of business and the stuff will be so cheap and available everywhere that addicts will not have to steal or mug to get it.

The bottom-line attitude is callous to the point of cruelty. It also won't work. It is based on ignorance or distortion of drug realities.

The drug war is not won but it has paid Drug availability, legal or not, means drug abuse. More availability, more abuse.

off. Heroin addiction has been stable at about a half-million since 1972. Legalization would have brought low-cost heroin, and probably a couple of million more addicts.

Crack: In high school, fewer students are using it -- not counting the dropouts. Crack use is a common cause, and result, of dropping out.

How will making cocaine entirely available, penalty-free, prevent even more students from dropping out? I don't grasp that. Among children as well as adults, legalization will achieve the purpose of a free market -- to increase supply, improve distribution, make customers, cut prices.

Reduce crime? A sour joke. Legalization might cut the number of drug pushers killing each other or bystanders killed by bullet-spray. By this logic, armed robbery should be legalized. Then nobody would get hurt.

But drug availability, legal or not, means drug abuse. More availability, more abuse. Abuse of alcohol destroys homes and lives. Abuse of narcotics does all that and also crowds the jails.

Drug addicts do not mug or steal simply to get money for a fix. By the thousands, crimes are committed by drug-inflamed addicts. Drugs, alone or combined with personality distortions, drive addicts into gutters in which they exist by crime -- en route to prison.

And how many more baby Americans would die under legalization -- battered by how many more drug-maddened parents or born damaged? How many more Americans would be killed in accidents caused by drugged-out drivers?

Money: We would be spending more, on more crime by more addicts, on care for more Americans driven into hospitals or the streets by their legal, no-hassle drug purchases.

The way out is to do our weary best to stop drugs from coming into the U.S. The way out is to fight drugs on the streets and in schools. The way out is to make drug therapy totally mandatory in prison for all convicts with any drug-use record; at last we would get something out of our jail money.

The way out is not perpetuation of drug abuse by legalization. From a surgeon general who does not understand that in mind and soul we should take neither advice, judgment or an aspirin.

A. M. Rosenthal is a New York Times columnist.

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