LEGALIZING illicit drugs - as called for recently by a New York federal judge and numerous scholars and politicians - is not a new idea. It was first broached in the late 1960s by college students who were experimenting with marijuana and didn't want to be thrown in jail for 10 years over a joint. At the time the argument had a certain chic libertarian appeal: People ought to be free to choose. Repression makes the problem worse. In England, it was said, a host of drugs were made legal, and heroin addiction there seemed on the wane. It all sounded very expansive in a popular culture seeking to redefine traditional notions of responsibility. Other than relaxed penalties for casual use, little changed.
In retrospect, that's to the good. The English experiment turned sour. The social climate in the US changed. So did US drug habits. Marijuana use is down, but crack cocaine, highly addictive, is on the scene with a vengeance, particularly in the inner city. Prisons and courts are jammed. The problem seems intractable.
The new advocates of legalization aren't arguing liberality. They are arguing economics, and a certain kind of ``realism.'' The fact is, they say, the current system isn't working - but is creating bigger problems. Interdiction hasn't worked. Drugs can't be kept out. If drugs are made legal, and the government taxes and regulates distribution as with alcohol, the huge profits fueling crime and violence would be undercut. Moreover, it is said, big government profits from drug sales could be plowed back into prisons, treatment, and so on.
Yet like so many other arguments driven mainly by economics and expediency, this one ignores more issues than it resolves. Legalization promises an easy out; but the hidden costs of a process that would institutionalize drugs like crack and heroin in American society are terrific.
Should it be legal to take a drug that will addict unborn children? There were an estimated 350,000 crack babies in '88. Who speaks for them? It costs $2.5 billion a year for their care.
What about the effect on driving? Won't legalization make procurement easier for kids? What about advertising? Will ads glamorize a movie star's favorite drug?
Illicit drugs should not become legal. Is our society mature or ``awake'' enough to handle that? Taking drugs is not an individual matter. Laws say that taking drugs does hurt other people. True, so does alcohol. Yet why make a bad situation worse?
There is no guarantee that legalization would stop illegal drug profits. More powerful drugs could be developed. The new synthetic drug ``ice'' is an example.
There are other ways to finance the drug battle. Mark Kleiman of Harvard notes that beer and wine - taxed at a 1951 level - would raise $10 billion a year. A 40 cents tobacco tax would raise $10 billion. (And cut use.)
American culture needs to be weaned away from its drug habit. Legalization won't help.