SEATTLE — As a kid from Queens, N.Y., who came of age during the Vietnam War and hippie years, drugs were an irresistible draw. An illegal-drug user from ages 17 to 19, I eventually came to my own zero-tolerance attitude toward drugs without serving prison time.
President Bush's nominee for drug czar, John Walters, is a staunch defender of prison for drug users, combined with some treatment. I think he's wrong.
I was fortunate during my two-year flirtation with marijuana and LSD. In San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district in the summer of '68, I once sold maybe six "$5 bags" of marijuana to out-of-town college students. Had I been arrested for drug dealing, I could have served years in prison.
A few months later, I was arrested in Chicago. The cops were still jumpy after the Democratic National Convention, and a car with four long-haired young men was hard to ignore. Charged with possession of cannabis for the few dollars' worth of hashish that I foolishly left in my jeans coin pocket when we were stopped, I again was fortunate.
Having fled my own problems and a father with a terrible temper, I didn't have the gumption to phone home. But after 24 hours, a family friend bailed me out, saving me from sitting in Cook County Jail for a month while I awaited trial. (Later I found out the jail had a reputation for violence, rape, and brutality. And there I was, a skinny, middle-class 18-year-old.) In the end, the case was dismissed on a technicality: suppression of evidence due to illegal search and seizure.
Mr. Walters' contention that prison time is a necessary partner with treatment for drug users is misguided, economically wasteful, and guaranteed to fail. It robs families of husbands and fathers, wives and mothers. It blames the victim for their "crime" of addiction, not to mention alienation, depression, hopelessness, abuse, chronic unemployment or underemployment, and other social and health problems.
Does anyone really think that if I had been imprisoned for 10 or 20 years in California or Illinois from age 18 to 28 or 38, I would be better off for it? That it would have made me a better citizen? I did pull myself together after a few tough years.
Today, the American prison population has exploded with people caught using or possessing drugs. In some states one can spend more time in prison for possession of marijuana than many convicted felons serve for murder - and certainly for killing innocent people while driving drunk, which usually gets a year or two behind bars.
I hope the Senate defeats the president's choice for drug czar. But if he's confirmed, let's see him tackle the biggest gateway drug of all: tobacco. As US surgeons general have reported, teens who smoke cigarettes are 100 times (not 100 percent) more likely to go on to marijuana and 30 times (not 30 percent) more likely to graduate to cocaine.
Raising the minimum buying age for tobacco from 18 to 21 would bring it in line with alcohol and dramatically lessen the number of new young victims. Let's see the tobacco industry prove their claims that they don't promote and advertise to children and teens by publicly supporting legislation to raise the purchase age for tobacco.
Banning tobacco print advertising would also have an impact on youth addiction. If the US government had the wherewithal to ban tobacco ads on television, then it can surely overcome the First Amendment tobacco lawyers who defend the tobacco industry's "right" to addict and kill half a million Americans every year.
A far-sighted drug czar would see the link between youth smoking and illegal drugs. And addressing the need for treatment of drug users over prison would provide the type of common-sense leadership Americans want. Counseling, literacy classes, and job training can make a big difference, and guess what? They're effective, and cost far less than imprisonment.
Seattle artist Akiva K. Segan directs the program Holocaust Education Through Art. He is also a sponsor-level volunteer with Jewish inmates for the Washington State Department of Corrections.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor