Drug delusions

THE proposal to legalize drugs as an attempt to solve the drug-related crime problem in America has the aura of an ``Alice in Wonderland'' contradiction between reality and illusion. Stripped to its minimum, the proposal is simply a laissez faire response to an ever-growing problem. Will it work? Laissez faire has not always been as effective in addressing social problems as its proponents think. It has failed to take care of the aged, the handicapped, or the disadvantaged in this country. Similarly, laissez faire will not address the drug problem in America.

The argument for legalizing drugs relies on a market theory of supply and demand:

If drugs were legalized, the price of drugs would come down, and with high profits taken away, crimes associated with the buying and selling of drugs would be eliminated.

The argument ignores the dangerously addictive nature of drugs. Experts say that only 10 percent of those who drink are problem drinkers, while 75 percent of the users of a drug like crack become addicted. Consequently, a lower price coupled with the addictive nature of drugs would lead to greater consumption - causing more, not fewer, problems for the United States.

One need not look far back in history to find the ill effects of a drug that was given virtually free rein in one country.

In 19th-century Imperial China, opium was considered fashionable and was widely available among the elite. Opium was shipped into the country in vast quantities by the West, primarily by the British East India Company at first.

In the mid-19th century, when the East India Company lost its monopoly, the price of opium dropped; the result, as private investments in the business soared, was a sharp increase, not a decrease, in opium sales.

The same arguments relating to legalization of drugs were made then as are made today. Some argued that those selling drugs were not much different from those who sold alcohol, and that they were simply supplying a product the Chinese wanted in the first place.

The Imperial Chinese government also considered bringing the opium trade under government monopoly as a way of addressing the economic and crime problems created by the opium trade. The government, however, recognizing that legalization would not solve the problem of addiction and seeing the effect of drug addiction on its subjects, rejected the idea.

Indeed, what had evolved by then was a nation effectively stifled by the addictive nature of opium. In 19th-century China, as much as 10 percent of the population may have used the drug. As the addictive nature of the drug worked to hinder the judgment and destroy the health of the imperial bureaucracy, China was crippled for more than a hundred years and weakened for foreign subjugation.

Legalizing drugs and increasing their availability fail to address addiction, a problem that cannot be overestimated. The easy availability and widespread use of one drug, opium, has had a devastating effect on one nation.

I would hate to see the same thing happen to another.

Margaret Y.K. Woo, a teaching fellow at the Center for Applied Legal Studies at Georgetown Law Center, taught law in China in 1987.

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