STANLEY CHAVIN had a few tense moments recently. They came when the organization he heads showed signs of reinforcing a policy that backs decriminalizing the sale and use of marijuana. Chavin is the out-going president of the American Bar Association (ABA), the nation's largest group of lawyers and judges. ABA is studying a preliminary blue-ribbon report on proposed reorganization of the federal courts. The findings will go to President Bush and Congress in April.
Recommended, among other items, is the placing of marijuana and other so-called ``soft'' drug cases under state and local jurisdiction rather than under the federal courts. This commission also places more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment, particularly for youthful drug users.
Chavin strongly endorses this direction. What he opposes is the idea that some drugs should be decriminalized to relieve the courts of the glut of drug-related cases. He is concerned that the national campaign to ``Say no to drugs'' would be undermined by such a move.
ABA has long opposed tough criminal penalties for marijuana users. At a recent meeting in Los Angeles, Chavin supported a proposal to leave the matter of criminal sanctions to individual state legislatures. Others would have continued down the path to decriminalization. In the end, the lawyers and judges adopted a resolution urging the President and Congress to provide more funds for education, prevention, and treatment to ``reduce and discourage the use of marijuana and other harmful drugs.''
The nation's legal community cannot make laws. ABA resolutions, however, do often influence government policy. The group's actions sometimes give a strong hint of the mood of the public.
Most opinion polls show a firm rejection of decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs. Yet there is strong concern that the court system is being so twisted and turned by the influx of drug cases that other matters are being placed on the docket back burners, sometimes for five years or more.
Several prominent public figures - intent on winning the war against drugs - are calling for decriminalization of marijuana and other narcotics. They insist that this would reduce the strain on the court system, the profit for the pusher, the price on the street, and the addict's need to steal. Among them are former secretary of state George Shultz, Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, and economist Milton Friedman. Leading the charge against lessening criminal penalties is White House drug czar William Bennett, who would impose tougher punishments than now exist.
There is a more basic issue, however, and Stanford Lawrence Friedman gets to it in his new book, ``The Republic of Choice: Law, Authority and Culture'' (Harvard University Press). Professor Friedman talks about a new individualism in society today in which choice is ``vital'' and ``fundamental.'' He discusses the sexual revolution and the general trends toward liberation which he says ``reflect ... the expression of choice.''
Friedman lumps sexual expression with drug use and gambling, which he generally would allow if there were some regulation. All of this comes within the context of a society that he sees as increasingly embracing choice over morality. He says that any free-choice code, if it does not harm other people, deserves ``equality of legitimacy.''
That may be the crux of it. We do live in a society that cherishes choice and individual freedom. And many reject traditional ethical codes that limit actions according to the values of the mainstream. We talk of ``victimless crime.'' And some would decriminalize drug possession, arguing that only the user is affected.
This is faulty reasoning, however, because drugs have a negative impact on all of society. It is impossible to guarantee that one person's use of narcotics won't touch others, including family, co-workers, friends, or acquaintances.
The national approach to drugs should lean on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Stiff penalties for marijuana possession may be excessive. There should be a way to separate criminal drug users from lesser offenders.
We need to know more about the effect of drugs on individuals and society, however, before we can make intelligent choices.