Thinking About Drugs

December 19, 1993|By JAMES M. KRAMON

The colloquy that has taken place in recent days involving Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders, President Clinton and members of Congress should not go unnoticed.

Ever since Dr. Elders suggested that the administration study the possibility of legalizing drugs, she has been subjected to unreasoned criticism. President Clinton has "distanced himself" from Dr. Elders, privately rebuffed her and publicly stated that were illegal drugs legalized, his addicted brother would be dead.

Senators and representatives, most of them Republicans, have charged that the surgeon general is "soft on crime." A few of our elected representatives have offered thinly veiled suggestions that Dr. Elders has no problem with drugs being sold to children after school.

What has occurred is paradigmatic of how our political system addresses the most serious matters confronting it -- in this case, the illegal use of drugs, which is taking this country apart. To any rational person motivated to find ways to address such a problem, the position of the president and various members of Congress -- that they are averse to a study to explore other possibilities for addressing the problem of illegal drug use -- is all but incomprehensible.

I am not taking the position that legalization of presently illegal drugs is the solution, nor suggesting any set of conditions within which such an approach might be tried. This is a subject which, as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has observed on numerous occasions, should be addressed by the best and brightest minds we are capable of bringing together. I can envision a commission composed of outstanding social scientists together with experts in law enforcement, urban affairs, education, medicine and other disciplines.

The task would be of staggering proportions, since it concerns a phenomenon that is obviously embedded to bedrock in every aspect of our society. It would entail sheer hubris to portend what such an inquiry might reveal.

A starting point for considering the dialogue that is presently taking place among national leaders is the irrefutable fact that the manner in which the problem of illegal drugs has been addressed for decades in this country has proven futile. I recall my years as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore, 1971 through 1975.

During that time, at every level -- federal, state and local -- there were special strike forces to ferret out and prosecute purveyors of illegal drugs. Hordes of law enforcement agents and prosecutors pursued this mission with alacrity, integrity and courage. There were thousands of prosecutions nationwide, nearly all of which were successful in obtaining convictions. The numbers of drug distributors arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated were formidable, and the quantities of illegal drugs intercepted were massive.

These efforts lasted for years and probably constitute, in manpower and money, the largest commitment ever made to any law enforcement objective in this country. In the end, distribution and utilization of illegal drugs in virtually every city and town of the United States was unaffected. To borrow Mayor Schmoke's phrase, we had witnessed a domestic Vietnam War.

Since those years, similar efforts have been repeated numerous times on one scale or another. New vocabulary has emerged in such efforts -- the "war on drugs" and the "drug czar," for example -- to confirm, I suppose, our sincerity in beating down this scourge with every scintilla of force we are able to muster. But new vocabulary, fresh battalions of law enforcement forces, larger prisons, and an increasing array of penalties have added nothing to the record of absolute failure.

In Baltimore, now sadly among the leading murder-rate cities in the United States, any conceivable illegal drug may be obtained in minutes at dozens of locations, from hundreds of purveyors, with less difficulty than one experiences buying underwear at Macy's.

Intelligent people confronted with problems begin the process of addressing them by doing two things: They obtain all possible facts relevant to the particular problem and, having done so, they explore as carefully as possible how various techniques for addressing similar situations have fared in the past. Physicians do not pursue therapies which have consistently been without curative effect. Lawyers do not recommend courses of action which have failed in every comparable situation in the past. These are not clever realizations, but they seem to evade many in public life.

Why do we not pursue a reasoned approach to the problem of illegal drug trafficking? Why do the president of the United States and the Congress not embrace the idea of a study to try to learn why our approach to this problem has failed and what other approaches may exist?

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