Wrong-and right-ways to fight heroin

Can we eradicate the international illegal traffic in heroin? The prospects are not promising. Yet today the alarm is being raised again. Heroin addiction in America may be on the rise. Certainly the cases of reported heroin overdoses have increased together with reports of new evidence that heroin supplies are surging in our East Coast cities.

Law-enforcement officials are already beginning to ask for more funds and personnel to interdict the flow of heroin into this country. It will not be long before public officials will be insisting that the US take a more forceful international role in policing and subsidizing efforts aimed at controlling the international traffic in heroin, including more money for enforcement, undercover agents, and bilateral assistance treaties.

There are several principal reasons why this approach has never worked and may actually delay a mature national program designed to identify and understand the causes of the drug malady.

* The first obstacle is that there is no true international consensus concerning the need to eradicate the heroin traffic. Most nations view this as a uniquely American problem. Most of the governments of the nations where opium is cultivated lack either the political traditions or the popular backing to assert administrative and police control over the cultivation of opium and its heroin byproduct.

* The next obstacle is the size of the area to be policed. The poppy flower (from which opium is derived) is cultivated from central Turkey through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and southern China.

Even if this whole area could be policed effectively, there is little hope of preventing the critical number of acres of poppy from being farmed and harvested. The 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of opium believed to be consumed illegally by the US user market could be grown in an area between 11.2 and 22.2 square miles. Some experts believe that as much as 35 pounds of opium could be produced on an acre of land, thus reducing the land needed to supply the entire US user market to only 4.5 to 5.4 square miles.

* The profitability of trafficking in heroin is another obstacle to its effective international control. For example, in 1972 a $22 investment in one kilogram of opium purchased from a Turkish farmer would retail on the streets of New York or Washington for $22,000. Many heroin distributors believe that the risks of incarceration are small when compared to the profit margin in the illegal distribution network.

Each year over 250 million people enter the United States. There are also 65 million cars and trucks, 306,000 planes, and 157,000 ships that cross its territorial boundaries. The problems involved in detection and surveillance are staggering. Customs officials have pointed out that on an average-sized ship there are 30,000 places where heroin can be hidden.

In a period of scarce resources, the tendency to place the emphasis in the struggle against heroin addiction on international control has been a dismal disappointment.

What we have failed to do since achieving our first national consensus and consciousness concerning heroin addiction and its waste of human potential is to begin a serious national inquiry into the causes of American heroin addiction. There are theories which abound but precious little authoritative research and study. Is it too much affluence or too much poverty which inclines one to addiction? Too much boredom or too much despair? What is it about the condition of our culture which inclines untold numbers to a self-destructive life style frequently ending in a gutter or as an unidentifiable overdose in a metropolitan hospital?

Americans have not asked the difficult -- perhaps painful -- question of why we suffer while many other nations do not have such an ugly problem.

What is needed is not a new research boondoggle but an organized national inquiry beginning in our local communities, bringing together the religious, civil, family, and scientific resources to understand why and to devise strategies to prevent addiction and where necessary to rehabilitate.

Because of changing attitudes in this country, I believe the time is ripe for a major educational campaign against drugs. As a nation, we appear to be moving away from the excesses and experimentations which characterized our past decade. Americans are becoming more concerned with their mental and physical health, as evidenced, for example, by the great national interest with jogging and diet. Programs have been devised and widely publicized to deal with various health problems such as stress, obesity, and alcoholism. Techniques should be developed to fully educate the public concerning the perils of illicit drug usage.

If there is a solution to the problem of American heroin addiction, it does not lie in the fields of Turkey and Afghanistan but in our urban and suburban communities. We cannot and will not make progress in eliminating heroin addiction in America until we have the courage and commitment to know where to look for the solution.

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