WASHINGTON — DEBATE in America escalates over a long-taboo drug issue: Should now-illegal drugs be made legal? A public statement this week in support of legalization by US District Judge Robert Sweet has called attention once again to the issue. The debate seems certain to grow. Many experts think pressure for legalization will increase until government shows clear evidence of reducing drug use among most segments of the population, and of greatly decreasing drug-related violence.
On one side of the current debate are a small but growing number of public figures, law professors, and others, including Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Most personally dislike drugs, want their widespread use ended, and think that the way to succeed is to treat drug use as a public health issue and not a legal one. Keeping drugs illegal causes crime to increase and hinders treatment, they hold - but does not decrease drug use.
``I just don't think that law enforcement is the way to deal with the drug crisis,'' says Gene Stephens, a professor of the College of Criminal Justice of the University of South Carolina. ``I don't think it can succeed.''
On the other side are much larger numbers of elected officials and drug experts. They say that if illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, and marijuana were legalized, the number of addicts would rise dramatically because drugs would be cheaper and far more accessible. Further, they add, fewer addicts would enter treatment because none would be required to seek treatment by a judge, as many are required to do now. Finally, society would lose its moral argument in seeking to persuade people not to use drugs.
``All the upheavals [legalization] would cause,'' laments William Bennett, the US drug czar and one of America's most forceful opponents of legalization. He says the proposal ``is just not in the real world.''
What makes the concept of legalizing drug so appealing, he told reporters at a Monitor breakfast meeting, is that ``it's simple. It sounds easy to do,'' but in fact would prove counterproductive.
``If you want to see the number of people using crack [cocaine] go from one to 10 million,'' Dr. Bennett adds, ``make it as available as alcohol.''
No support now is believed to exist in Congress for drug legalization, as Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York quickly pointed out after Judge Sweet's speech. One of Congress's leading experts on drugs, Representative Rangel is chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.
But support for legalization likely will build across the nation and perhaps gain a foothold in Congress, if government drug-fighting programs are unsuccessful, experts say.
For example, government should resist the temptation to spend large amounts of money on drug education and treatment programs until it knows which ones are effective, warns Edwin DeLattre, Bradley Fellow in Applied Ethics at the American Enterprise Institute. Too many programs now don't work, he says.
If these programs were prematurely expanded and proved ineffective, he says, proponents of legalization likely would label the concepts of education and treatment failures, and would gain much more popular support for legalization.
Opponents say the idea of legalization runs counter to several current trends in America: Declining drug use except in inner cities among minorities, rising worker concern about drug use among their colleagues, and growing opposition among Americans both to drug use and to the violence that attends the drug trade.