Legalization: No Answer

AN idea whose time should never come is getting a fresh hearing. It's the legalization of addictive drugs, and its backers span the political spectrum, right to left.

The conservative National Review, for instance, devotes much of its current issue to pleas for legalization.

Proponents' arguments usually emphasize removing the economic incentives that drive the market for illicit drugs. If criminal sanctions were lifted, they say, the huge profits reaped by drug rings would vanish.

So, presumably, would the human wreckage surrounding those underworld enterprises - the murders, the recruiting of young dealers, the burgeoning prison populations.

A parallel is drawn to Prohibition and the criminal networks it spawned, which faded when alcohol was again made legal. But the parallels don't end there. If one looks behind the glitzy facade of product promotion and social acceptance, the alcohol picture in the United States is horrendous: countless lives and families demolished and a yearly medical bill of $30 billion to $40 billion.

What would be the effect of adding cocaine, marijuana, or heroin to the list of legal dangerous drugs, a list now limited to alcohol and tobacco? How does society keep commercial interests from exploiting their proven market value? Would their appeal to youth be dampened or heightened?

Alcohol use was high before, during, and after Prohibition. Tobacco use is similarly ingrained, though it is slowly being dislodged. The other drugs have no such history of widespread acceptance, and they shouldn't be given the chance to acquire one.

The people arguing their case in National Review raise valid points, however. The drug war has wrought its own kind of destruction. In particular, the unceasing quest for toughness has resulted in sentences out of proportion to the crimes committed and police methods, such as sweeping forfeiture powers, out of keeping with American traditions of justice.

But such distortions are political creations. They can be changed. They don't justify giving the aura of legality to harmful drugs.

We've said before that the war against drugs needs rethinking. The metaphor itself may be too destructive, too easily narrowed into a war against the people whose lives are being ruined by drugs. Little has been done to reduce the demand for drugs. The campaign has never used the tools of persuasion, treatment, economic opportunity, and education as creatively and extensively as it should.

The ideas put forward by the legalizers have no political champions, as yet, and little support among the public - though Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical about the long-running ''war.'' The most those who would legalize can hope for is to be part of a national dialogue on making drug policy more effective. That dialogue is overdue, but its outcome should be a broader offensive against drugs, not abandoning the field.

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