WE are beginning to be confronted with a very bizarre proposal. It is a proposal that we legalize drugs. In other words, that we make more plentiful and socially acceptable those drugs whose use we have been trying to curb, and which are responsible for much of the crime and violence throughout American cities.
The proponents of legalization are well-meaning. They argue that drug abuse has become about as serious a problem in our society as in any other one. They are right. They argue that despite brave words from the Reagan administration, and some successful skirmishing, we are not winning the war against drug producers and traffickers. They are right.
But they are wrong to argue that the solution lies in legalizing drugs. Legalization, they say, would reduce the cost, cut the profits, and put illegal traders out of business.
They are wrong because there are grave doubts about the plan's practical effect.
They are wrong because what they are proposing is morally offensive.
This is no time for the United States government to start saying ``yes'' to drugs.
In practical terms, the availability of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine at your neighborhood drugstore seems more likely to increase, rather than lessen, the number of drug-users. With governmental sanction for drug use, why would not more people be tempted to use more of a substance that is suddenly cheaper and freely available without penalty of punishment?
Why wouldn't that increase the number of addicts, and attract more first-time and ``under age'' users? How does having more people on the streets, and driving cars along them, who are under the influence of drugs contribute to a more orderly society?
In moral terms, how could parents, social workers, and government agencies maintain a credible educational campaign against drug use when the United States government had made drugs newly and legally available at the corner store?
What kind of message would it send to the rest of the world that drug use was legally endorsed in America, so often the cultural pacesetter for the world's youth?
We are indebted to David Musto, a Yale professor and expert on the subject, for reminding us that the current drug epidemic is not unique. The United States experimented with free cocaine use in the 1880s. It was available in cigarettes and cheroots and inhalants, commercially produced, widely advertised, and on the shelves of every drugstore. The use of opium was at a level unequaled since then.
It was, says Professor Musto in a Wall Street Journal article, the damage to users and their families caused by the free use of narcotics that led to popular insistence on legal curbs. It was a combination of curbing legislation and public revulsion that cut back cocaine use. But, the professor warns, establishment of a broad public consensus against cocaine took about 20 years.
Although it may have taken 20 years, public attitudes toward drug use did undergo transformation in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In our own times, we have seen sharply changing attitudes toward tobacco, now considered an addicting substance, and a change of thought about liquor is beginning.
Some proponents of drug legalization want hearings in Congress. That is a good idea if the aim is to assess how well - or how badly - we are faring in the war against drugs, and to revitalize our strategy. But because the fight may need to be waged more vigorously, this is no time to throw in the towel and give legal acceptance to drug use, whose effect on society we know is evil.
It is in a change of public thought that the real solution lies. Legalizing drugs is not the answer, and in their hearts most Americans know it.