Legalization: the cruelest hoax

January 20, 1995|By A.M. Rosenthal

THE CAMPAIGN for drug legalization grows in wallet and prestige. But, as it picks up journalistic and academic endorsement and foundation money, one thing stays constant. It remains now, as it always has been, one of the most cruel and selfish movements in America.

The great majority of Americans are against legalization. So are the politicians they elect to office.

And Americans who believe in using government power and public opinion to fight narcotics are drowsily inclined to believe that to pay attention to the legalization movement would strengthen it, so let's not.

While we slumber, the movement becomes respectable. The Soros foundation recently gave pro-legalizers at least $6 million, to study legalization and decriminalization.

Meanwhile, the struggle against drugs is long and wearying. Achievement does not always hold steady. People who say they have a cheap and fast solution get a hearing their logic would never earn them.

Far more important, it is clear that the legalizers can make important headway without passing laws. They strive to weaken the essential national resolve that the drug war must be fought with as many weapons and for as long as it takes.

This is backdoor drug acceptance, almost as dangerous as legalization. The United States is still paying in broken lives, fear, violence and damaged newborns for the tacit decriminalization won by the counterculture in the 1960s.

Last month the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research reported that illegal drug use among secondary school students is rising. The study traced an expansion of drug use among young people into the late 1970s, a decline through 1991 and since then a resurgence.

The warning from the study group was that as children heard less disapproval and more glamorization or approval of drugs, their own use went up. You don't really need a law. We must keep repeating the truth in the academy, the press, the movies or TV.

The legalization movement is cruel because it would create more addicts, more abused children, more victims of muggings and robberies, millions more every single year.

It is selfish because it would move the entire burden of fighting drugs from the totality of society to neighborhoods that already suffer most. It is both cruel and selfish because it glides over the ruined lives of those who abuse drugs, legally or not.

The movement claims that legalization would drive drug mobsters out of business, which would cut down on crime so us non-addicts could live in peace. But nobody has demonstrated how it would reduce crime or addiction, because it will not.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the New York City police have shown the way at least to cut down on drug-mob shootings. Go after them, arrest gunners, pushers and their customers; don't look away, put them away.

The police have done their job well enough in the Washington Heights section of New York City to force the mobsters indoors. That cuts down on street assassinations. But it has not cut down on drug abuse, or on crimes by addicts.

Most drug crimes are not carried out by addicts frantic for drug buying money, but after and because of drug use, by addicts who take to cold-blooded crime as the only way drugs leave them fit to make a living.

If drugs could be purchased without penalty -- or given away -- there would be more addicts, therefore more crime. That is the root hoax of legalization.

To fight drugs and drug crime takes a combination of interdiction at home and abroad, well-funded drug therapy and a resolute anti-drug national consensus enforced by tough, constant parent, police and neighborhood pressure. A combination.

Americans who support legalization are not looking for an up or down vote. They know they could never win. But they also know, because America has seen it happen, that if the public stops caring about enforcing the drug laws, that is just as good as taking them off the books, and a lot less trouble.

Americans who support drug legalization or decriminalization may be otherwise decent people. But to the extent that they succeed they are responsible for what is wrought, even though they be lovely to their own children and house plants, and whether they contribute $1 or $6 million, in coin or embrace.

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

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