That's What She Gets for Speaking Her Mind

December 24, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Contrary to popular belief, the mighty stick of political correctness is not wielded only by left-progressives and liberals.

Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders found that out when she recently suggested that maybe it might not be a bad idea to consider studying the impact legalization of drugs might bring.

Judging by the reaction that exploded out of some quarters, particularly Republican ones, you might have thought Ms. Elders had called for legalized baby selling.

Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., denounced her ''radical'' views and called for her resignation. He was joined, with various degrees of enthusiasm, by Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, among others.

Interestingly, I somehow missed hearing this chorus of denunciators when William F. Buckley Jr., among other conservative voices, called for similar studies in the past. I guess political correctness is in the eye -- and the agenda -- of the beholder.

Even so, White House spokespersons sounded thoroughly spooked. They quickly distanced themselves from Ms. Elders' remarks and, in effect, from her.

Then, compounding her woes, police charged her son Kevin M. Elders, 28, with selling an eighth of an ounce of powder cocaine to an undercover officer in a city park for $275 last July.

Before he surrendered to police Sunday in Little Rock, Arkansas, the young Elders was quoted in the New York Times as denying the charges and suggesting they might have been politically motivated. Political or not, the charges only add to the embarrassment and marginalization of Ms. Elders as an effective voice in the surgeon general's office.

That's what she gets for speaking her mind, I guess. The message is clear: Truth is no longer a reason for people in government to say what they believe.

What did she say? At a December 7 National Press Club luncheon, Ms. Elders, speaking off the cuff, said she felt that ''we would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized. But I don't know all the ramifications of this. I do feel that we need to do some studies.''

Is that so wrong? Have we become so tight-fisted and close-minded as a people that we are willing to spend billions for jails, but nothing on the study of possible alternatives?

I thought that Baltimore's Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a former prosecutor, had lifted this topic well into the realm of acceptable debate when he called for a study of legalization several years ago, at the height of President Reagan's ''Just Say No'' era.

There is nothing more ''radical'' about that suggestion than it would have been to suggest at the height of Al Capone's violent bootleg whiskey wars that maybe we ought to look at the possibility of ending Prohibition.

Like it or not, legalization has advantages and disadvantages. Both need to be fairly weighed. For starters, Ms. Elders is absolutely right that we would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized. Crime naturally is reduced as a consequence of making a criminal activity legal.

More important, the fuel that has sparked drug wars on America's streets in recent years would be removed if crack cocaine and the other drugs over which the gangs are fighting was legalized.

But there also are unintended consequences that must be considered. For one thing, drug crimes undoubtedly would go down when drugs are legalized, but their usage would undoubtedly go up.

If today's illegal drugs were made legal, there is no doubt in my mind that a lot of people would go out and try them and that quite a few people would like the experience and return to become regular customers.

Americans might well be better off if some of the less harmful drugs, like marijuana or hashish, were made legal, taxed and treated as public-health issues, like alcohol.

I am less sanguine about crack, heroin, PCP and other fiercely addictive horrors of modern life. Other countries that have tried to legalize such serious drugs have had mixed results. Switzerland, for example, closed down its legal drug sanctuary ''needle park'' after it turned into a cesspool of addicted humanity.

Contrary to popular belief, Prohibition did work. It did not stop alcohol consumption, but it did reduce it, along with alcohol-related illnesses.

Prohibition ended largely because Americans didn't like the way it made criminals out of otherwise decent citizens who only wanted a drink.

When Prohibition ended, the bootleg hooch industry dried up, but alcohol consumption rose and stayed high (no pun intended) for more than a half-century, until recent years, when changing ,, social standards suddenly made it less fashionable.

Maybe other drugs need to go through a similar cycle of legalization and public education. Or maybe not. But when did the very mention of it become a politically taboo topic?

The marginalization of Joycelyn Elders shows how deeply anti-drug hysteria has penetrated modern political discourse -- and crossed party lines.

During last year's campaign, Bill Clinton cited the wisdom that says a definition of insanity is to do the same ineffective thing over and over again. Maybe he should listen again to his own words.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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