To make narcotics legal defies history and science Supporters of decriminalization of hard drugs, on the political right and left, ignore both bad and good news.


October 11, 1998|By Jill Jonnes | Jill Jonnes,Special to the sun

It has become very much the fashion on the left and the righ to denounce the "war on drugs" as a failure so abject that the only possible solution is to legalize drugs. The legalizers have taken to speaking of drug "Prohibition," as if cocaine and heroin were comparable to alcohol, and insisting that the big problem is, and always has been, not the drugs themselves but our drug laws. The latest entry from the left is Hollywood filmmaker Mike Gray's "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess & How We Can Get Out" (Random House, 251 pages, $23.95).

The latest entry from the right is conservative Republican Dirk Chase Eldredge's "Ending the War on Drugs: A Solution for America" (Bridge Works Publishing Co., 224 pages, $22.95).

Legalizing drugs is one of the few issues that unites those on both the far left and the far right. The legalizers tend to be people with little firsthand experience with the hard-core drug culture. This allows well-meaning people like Republican Eldredge to assert that, "If illegal drugs were legalized ... there is no reason to expect an increase in the number of people whose value systems or psychological profiles destine them to substance abuse." Any addiction expert will tell you that availability and exposure are key.

I certainly understand the simple allure of saying just legalize drugs, because I too once assumed, like many baby boomers, that this would be a nice, clean answer. But the horrors of the crack epidemic and a dozen years spent immersed in the history and policy of drugs have thoroughly persuaded me that drugs are just too addicting, complex, dangerous and corrupting to be made yet more available.

Moreover, there is highly promising news on the anti-drug front that the legalizers choose to ignore: drug courts, the fastest-growing and most successful development in decades. More on that later.

The legalizers, in arguing that illegal drugs are really not so much worse than alcohol, reconfigure both history and medical experience to advance their cause.

Mike Gray in "Drug Crazy" argues that American addicts were happily using such new drugs as heroin and cocaine at the turn of the century, and causing no pain to themselves or society. Yet as early as 1895, Scientific American was writing, "Cocaine habitues are utterly unreliable and disregard all personal appearance, going about unkempt, bedraggled and forlorn. The cocaine habit is a swift road to destruction."

Moreover, claims Gray, our first federal drug law, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, was foisted upon an unwary nation. He glosses over the hard fact that American cities and states had been steadily passing local anti-drug laws from 1875 on. Why? Because even then Americans could see how easily people became addicted and then anti-social.

Heroin, for instance, had been a popular street drug for only a few years when a Manhattan doctor working in the prison system wrote in 1914, "The increase in the number of people addicted to habit forming drugs has been extraordinary within the last five years. The greatest increase has been within the last year."

The legalizers also like to ignore the 50 years when our drug laws worked quite well. I would argue that the laws were so successful that drugs became a marginal social problem, removed from our public policy radar screen until the 1960s. Yet "Drug Crazy" author Gray declares all events post-Harrison Narcotics Act "a brutal eighty-year conflict that has produced the opposite of what was intended."

In fact, we were doing fine keeping drugs off limits until the late 1960s. But the Cold War gave national security precedence and we winked at Cold War allies - like the French - who did little as their gangsters steadily escalated the postwar heroin trade. By the late 1960s, this growing heroin trafficking set off an inner-city epidemic. At the same time, many baby boomers decided that getting high on illegal drugs was a fun way to express social

rebellion and perhaps even achieve a better, more interesting self. By the time the middle-class began to relearn history's lesson that the down side to drugs is far bigger than the up side, driven home by basketball player Len Bias' death from cocaine in 1986, the Colombian cartels were busy shipping in 300 tons of cocaine a year. When the middle-class turned away, the Colombians refocused on the poor, setting off the crack epidemic, adding more than 3 million crack addicts to the existing half-million heroin addicts.

Are alcohol and illegal drugs really comparable? Medical science shows that alcohol is moderately addicting. It is also legal. We have about 10 million alcoholics. Medical science shows that heroin and cocaine are highly addicting. They are illegal. We have about about 4 million drug addicts. The reality is that making drugs illegal keeps a great many people from trying and using them. If these extremely seductive substances became legal, we could expect our addict population to triple, if not quadruple.

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