Not-So-Tricky FIX Just say no? Not for a Poly grad and a Hopkins professor, who say the answer for drug addiction is yes--to a treatment plan that worked during the Nixon years and can do so again.

December 29, 1998|By KEN FUSON | KEN FUSON,SUN STAFF

Journalist Michael Massing has devoted a decade to investigating America's war on drugs. He has talked with peasants in remote coca-growing regions of Colombia. He has combed through dusty boxes of federal archives. He has documented the heroic struggle of treatment workers at a drop-in center in Spanish Harlem. He has watched a heroin addict shoot up in a New York City tenement.

And this is his conclusion:

Richard Nixon was right.

Now there's a sentence you don't see every day. But Massing argues in "The Fix," his fascinating and unforgiving account of U.S. drug policy, that the Nixon administration's approach in the early 1970s resulted in less crime, fewer overdose deaths and fewer drug-related visits to hospital emergency rooms.

Not only would the Nixon plan work today, Massing believes, but it also would cost less.

Interested? Here's the catch: Nixon's drug-fighting strategy included treatment for every hard-core drug addict who wanted it. Massing believes the country could -- and should -- offer the same today.

Still interested?

"I've learned that the c-word -- compassion -- is a real red flag for people," Massing says. "I'm stressing that this is a much more effective and promising approach.

"When you lay out the research and how affordable and generally successful treatment is compared to other approaches, that rings in people's ears."

With "The Fix," recently published by Simon and Schuster, Massing presents a meticulously researched, fact-filled account of U.S. drug policy since the Nixon years. Although the country now spends more than $17 billion a year to fight drugs, and prison populations and costs are soaring, there still remain an estimated 4 million hard-core abusers of cocaine and heroin.

Something's not working.

"It would be hard to think of an area of U.S. social policy that has failed more completely than the war on drugs," Massing writes in the book's opening sentence. The answer, he writes later, is a "new public-health approach to the nation's drug problem, one based not on the punitive powers of the law but on the healing powers of medicine."

Massing, 46, is a 1970 graduate of Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore. Although he now lives in New York, he didn't have to look far from his former home to find the person most responsible for crafting the Nixon administration's successful drug-fighting strategy.

Jerome Jaffe, who lives in Towson, was the nation's first drug czar. A psychopharmacologist, Jaffe had created a network of treatment programs in Illinois when he was picked by Nixon in 1971 to run the newly created Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention.

"I wanted treatment to be so available that people could not say they committed crimes because they couldn't get treatment," Jaffe says. "If somebody becomes dependent, and there's no option for them, and they steal something, society faces a moral dilemma. They didn't provide an alternative, but they're holding them accountable."

Well-founded worries

As Massing's book indicates, it certainly wasn't sympathy for drug addicts that led Nixon's advisers to Jaffe. A heroin epidemic at home, combined with press reports of increasing drug addiction among American GIs in Vietnam, produced well-founded White House worries of a political problem before the 1972 election. Nixon hoped Jaffe would help solve it.

To Massing, this is yet another example of the Nixon paradox. The anti-Communist president who went to China also was the law-and-order champion who did more to help addicts than any president since.

To Jaffe, "Nixon was the ultimate pragmatist. He certainly had strong feelings about drugs. He felt that they corroded the fabric of society. How do you deal with that? One way is to get supply under control. I think he came to realize that you have to deal with the demand side as well."

"The Fix" is much more than a public policy analysis. Massing also tells the gripping stories of Raphael Flores, the obsessively dedicated worker at Hot Line Cares, a walk-in center in Spanish Harlem where addicts could walk in off the street and get help, and Yvonne Hamilton, a cocaine and crack addict.

While visiting a "shooting gallery," Massing says, he was talking to some addicts when a man casually rolled up a sleeve, wrapped a belt around his arm to make a vein appear and plunged a needle into his skin.

"At that moment, looking at him, I fainted," Massing says. "I've always had a thing about needles. I felt totally chagrined. Here I was, the tough reporter, going in and fainting."

But Massing's work in Spanish Harlem -- he spent four years there -- showed him the similarity between what Jaffe was doing in Chicago 30 years ago and what workers such as Raphael Flores were trying to do today.

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