Attack the profit, not the fact, of drugs

December 10, 1996|By A. ROBERT KAUFMAN

OUR PRESENT ''War on Drugs'' policy is, at best, a complete failure. I say ''at best'' because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that those who designed and those who carry out this phony ''war'' never intended for it to succeed. How could it? This policy has four equally infeasible aspects -- intervention, interdiction, arrests and incarceration.

First, it is impossible to effectively intervene in other counties to prevent illicit drugs from being produced there. Coca, poppies and marijuana can be grown in too many places.

Second, interdiction is impossible to achieve because our borders are too wide and the drugs are too small. (Recent and not so recent indications of CIA compliance in drug smuggling into the U.S. suggest that our government's interdiction policy is, at best, ambivalent.) Even if intervention or interdiction could work, any kid with $2,000, a book from the library and a vacant garage could manufacture hallucinogenic drugs.

Third, arresting dealers doesn't work because there is an endless supply of impoverished young men ready to take their places, often after shooting it out to determine who will be the new king of the hill. (Knowing this, the police could probably reduce the murder rate by not arresting the current drug dealers.)

Fourth, if imprisonment worked, half the world's addicts would not be living in the U.S. We already imprison a larger proportion of citizens than any other nation.

Not a single aspect of this ''war'' has succeeded. Those who defend it are either knaves or fools.

Further, this has been an exceedingly vi- A. Robert Kaufman

olent and costly ''civil war.'' Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier tells us that three out of four murders in Baltimore are drug-related, as are 85 percent of other felonies.

Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson tells us that Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland Hospitals each spend about $100 million dollars a year on emergency-room drug overdoses. The drug wars are probably a prime reason those who can afford to are leaving town in flocks. Drug treatment goes begging because we waste too many billions of dollars on the endless ''war.''

When you don't win a war after several decades of fighting, you fire your generals and change your strategy. The most popularly offered alternative strategy is to legalize drugs, as we did with alcohol after prohibition and as we now do with tobacco. Just imagine what Liggett and Myers or Anheuser-Busch could do in marketing crack or powdered cocaine!

There is a way out of the dilemma. Take the profit out of drugs by treating them as a public health issue, not a criminal issue. The addict could go to a clinic and purchase a drug for a nominal price -- so low that it would no longer pay to sell drugs on the street or to try to make people become addicted. Street sales of drugs would remain illegal, but if there were no profit in it, who would want to do so?

The City Wide Coalition has a comprehensive three-part resolution in the City Council that addresses this problem.

First, it petitions Congress and the president to end this phony war on drugs by creating a politically independent commission, composed of non-profits like the Urban League, the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, etc., to administer a process of providing illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana at nominal cost to anyone who, in the commission's view, would get these drugs on the street.

The question is how

The question is not whether addicts will get their drugs. We know they will. The question is how they will get their drugs and how much damage they will do to themselves and to the greater community in the process.

Second, the resolution addresses the issues of poverty and unemployment, which are linked to the problem of drugs. The resolution calls for the sort of interim federal jobs program we had in the 1930s, when private enterprise was unable to provide sufficient employment. As a result of projects like the Works Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, our young men built our national parks and highways.

Such an operation, perhaps a ''Civilian Reconstruction Corps,'' should be urban-oriented and should include women as well as men, older as well as younger people who now beg on the streets or populate homeless shelters and soup kitchens. They would live in sanitary conditions, eat nutritious meals and receive adequate medical attention, high school equivalency education, group counseling and job training while they work 40 hours a week for the community.

Such emergency jobs programs should be run by the trade-union movement to guarantee that the program not compete with present union jobs and to provide the best on-the-job training. Those enrolled in the program would then become assets to the community and take their places as responsible citizens. Plenty of work needs to be done cleaning up our cities, repairing our infrastructure and salvaging our environment.

The third part of the City Wide Coalition's resolution recommends similar programs in other cities and states. Only a national, comprehensive federal policy can begin to solve America's drug problem.

Such a program could probably be financed, along with adequate facilities for drug treatment on demand, for a fraction of what we are currently wasting on this failed ''war.'' Even if it took a mite more, I, for one, am willing to make the sacrifice of increasing the taxes on the rich for such a cause.

The City Council and Mayor Schmoke will not move on the City Wide Coalition's resolution unless the citizens make them do so.

Make them!

A. Robert Kaufman is a Baltimore activist.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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