Realpolitik for the drug wars

April 29, 1994|By Robin Miller

BEFORE the current cocaine craze, heroin was supposed to be the worst drug in the world. Marijuana, LSD and other drugs were looked down upon by parents and such, but heroin was the drug that could inspire fear and loathing even among the most TC hardened acid trippers or marijuana smokers. Heroin was serious stuff you didn't want to mess with.

Heroin killed Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Bruce and Janis Joplin. We heard Yoko Ono's withdrawal screams.

Authority figures told us that lesser drugs could lead to heroin use. It was an excellent argument. While most young drug experimenters in the 1960s and 1970s gradually eased back into mainstream society, a few ended up shivering and sweating in a heroin nightmare. Watching friends become junkies probably scared more kids away from drugs than all the speeches by all the adults in the world.

Today, heroin is back in the headlines, along with much hand-writing about its resurgence. Personally, I'm glad to see heroin becoming a "drug of choice" once again. In a world full of cocaine crazies, old-fashioned heroin junkies seem almost benign.

Heroin is a depressant. When a heroin user is high, he or she is in a fog and can't move very quickly. The more heroin a junkie gets hold of, the longer he or she is out of action. While in that drug-induced stupor, a heroin addict can't work, take care of a child or do anything of value to society. Of course, a heroin addict who is too stoned to work is also too stoned to steal anything or rob anyone.

Cocaine is a stimulant. When a cocaine user gets high, he or she gets restless, far too restless to work or take care of a child. Instead of hanging around in a slow dream, a person high on cocaine wants to run the streets and do something. But because a blast doesn't last long, a cocaine addict must expend most of his or her drug-induced energy looking for money to buy more.

So while a heroin addict may spend up to 20 hours a day in a quiet daze, a cocaine addict can easily spend up to 20 hours a day actively looking for crimes to commit, which means that cocaine users may, per person, commit several times as many crimes as heroin users.

Cocaine users also tend to be more successful criminals than heroin users. Heroin users are slow, so they are easy to outwit and outrun. Cocaine users are fast, so they are hard to catch. Cocaine also makes users feel strong and invulnerable, so they are more likely to commit foolhardy crimes than heroin users.

I have long since accepted the fact that a certain percentage of the human race wants to spend their lives in an intoxicated state. All we are doing, by outlawing some drugs and allowing others to be sold openly, is steering people toward drugs we condone and away from ones we don't like.

I don't like cocaine. I don't like heroin either. But given a choice between living among cocaine users and heroin users, I'll choose the heroin people. I might almost choose the heroin people over drunks, because alcohol users tend to fight more and make more noise than junkies.

The problem with our current "Just say no" attitude toward drugs, besides its inherent hypocrisy, is the assumption that all illegal drugs are equally bad. The truth is that heroin addicts harm only themselves and, because of the AIDS risk, their sex partners. Cocaine users present much more of a threat to society at large because of the attitude cocaine induces.

In a sensible world, we would give those who want to wipe themselves out a way to do it peacefully. Heroin keeps its users out of sight and out of mind better than any intoxicant ever developed. Instead of condemning heroin, perhaps we should tolerate its use over other drugs as long as users are willing to stay in their own little enclaves and not bother anyone else.

This is a coldly logical approach to the "drug problem" we are faced with today. It might not save the addicts themselves, but it would keep them away from the rest of us.

And isn't this what we really want?

Robin Miller runs a Baltimore limousine service.

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