WASHINGTON -- Since 1973, when Richard Nixon declared an "all-out global war" on the "drug menace," the official policy of our government has been one of "stamping out" and "conquering" drug use in this country.
By 1981, the federal government was spending $1.5 billion to fight the drug war. By 1993, the figure had risen to $12 billion.
And what do we have to show for it?
One could say nothing: Heavy drug use remains unacceptably high.
Or one could even say worse than nothing: As Yale Professor Steven B. Duke points out, since 1973, when the current drug war began, property crimes have tripled in America and violent crime rates have doubled.
Duke is a leading proponent of legalizing drugs to remove the profit motive and thereby reduce crime.
"After a generation of escalating drug war efforts, the costs of marijuana, cocaine and heroin are about 100 times what they would be in a free market," Duke writes. "The inevitable effects of jacking up the cost of drugs is the commission of crime by drug users to obtain money to buy drugs.
"In a recent survey of persons in prison for robbery or burglary, one out of three said that they committed their crimes in order to buy drugs."
Under drug decriminalization, a policy favored by Kurt Schmoke (who now calls it drug "medicalization"), drug addiction would be defined as a disease, and doctors would dispense drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana to addicts. (Some drugs, such as PCP and LSD would remain illegal. All drugs would remain illegal for children.)
Though the addict population might initially rise, proponents argue one purpose of decriminalization is to get people off drugs, to treat them medically and to maintain programs to prevent people from starting drugs.
There has not been a stampede of public officials joining Schmoke in advocating this policy.
At the first presidential debate in 1992, Bill Clinton made clear where he stood on drug decriminalization.
"I know more about this, I think, than anybody else up here because I have a brother who's a recovering drug addict," Clinton said. "I'm very proud of him. But I can tell you this: If drugs were legal, I don't think he'd be alive today. I am adamantly opposed to legalizing drugs."
And, late last year, after Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders called for a "dialogue" on the subject of drug decriminalization, .. White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers was dispatched to say: "The president is against legalizing drugs, and he's not interested in discussing the issue."
Schmoke, however, was not dismayed.
"I do believe if President Clinton simply allowed Dr. Elders and Lee Brown [director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy] to devise a plan to move our resources much more toward a public health approach, if we could get a dramatic expansion of drug treatment programs, I think it would have a dramatic impact rates of addiction and crime," he told me last month.
So on Nov. 24, Schmoke wrote a letter to Clinton saying: "I think it is imperative that we view substance abuse as a public health problem and treat it as such by reversing the current balance of funding related to illicit drugs from 70 percent for law enforcement and 30 percent for treatment/prevention."
On Wednesday, Clinton announced his new drug plan and though he did not accept Schmoke's formula, he did revise the formula in the direction Schmoke suggested: 60 percent for law enforcement and 40 percent for treatment/prevention.
"I think the strategy moves in the right direction," Schmoke said yesterday. "The message from Washington for a long time was treatment doesn't work or there was skepticism about it. I think the President and Dr. Brown make very clear that treatment must be part of an effective drug control strategy."
So the Clinton plan will work?
"It is a step in the right direction," Schmoke said, "but it still does not take the profit out of street level drug dealing and it is those profits that drive crime."
What of the fate of decriminalization?
Five years ago, Schmoke believed it was right. Today, he believes it is inevitable.
"I believe," he said, "that the country continues to move toward one day adopting a national drug control policy that makes the war on drugs primarily a public health war rather than criminal justice war."