IN a society struggling to untangle itself from a complex web of illegal drugs, violence, and crime, the phrase ``legalization of drugs'' is a political hand grenade when spoken by the United States surgeon general.
``Joycelyn Elders found out immediately the political suicide of publicly raising the issue of legalization of drugs, and so would any US senator or House member,'' says Roger Miller of the Institute of University Studies in Arlington, Texas, and co-author of the book, ``Undoing Drugs: Beyond Legalization.''
More than 85 percent of American voters believe that heroin, cocaine, and marijuana should remain illegal, according to 1991 Department of Justice statistics. And the surgeon general, the nation's chief medical officer, traditionally opposes illegal substances.
When Ms. Elders suggested last week, ``We need to do studies to find out whether [legalization] makes a difference,'' her boss, President Clinton, quickly disagreed with her. He said ``the costs of legalizing drugs would far outweigh the benefits'' but indicated his support by calling her ``outspoken and energetic,'' even while politicians severely criticized her.
A handful of drug-legalization proponents, however, applaud her suggestion. Decriminalization of hard drugs would take the crime out of drug activity, they say.
Billions of dollars would be freed from fighting street crimes to address the social causes of violence and crime. Yes, addiction would go up, but no one knows how much, they say, and no price is too great to end the heavy costs of drug-related crimes and violence.
According to the RAND Corporation, federal, state, and local spending on drug enforcement between 1981 and 1992 was a little over $100 billion. Interdiction policies of previous administrations and increased law enforcement has not significantly reduced the amount of drugs being used in American society.
Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore says: ``If we make the war on drugs primarily a public-health war rather than a criminal-justice war, we might be able to drastically reduce violence in this country.''
William Buckley, editor-at-large of the National Review, says there be ``federal drug stores'' similiar to state-operated liquor stores that control liquor sales.
US District Judge Robert Sweet, another proponent, cites the increase in crime that came with Prohibition, and the diminished crime when Prohibition was repealed. Prohibition, he says, brought contempt for law.
Some social-policy analysts contend that for a society that has legalized all kinds of drugs - prescriptions, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine - it is hypocritical to oppose more legalization. Marijuana, for instance, is alleged to be less harmful than alcohol. In fact, 10 states have decriminalized marijuana use.
``Legalization is not an issue anyone wants to discuss seriously,'' says Mark Kleiman, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, ``because then you confront Americans with their own drug habits, notably alcohol and tobacco.''
Illegal drug use is not primarily an inner-city problem in America. Only 20 percent of illicit drugs are consumed in the inner cities. White, middle-class Americans use illicit drugs the most.
Mr. Kleiman's approach to tackling the drug problem is not to get caught up in the legalization versus prohibition debate. ``Which drug is causing the most damage now?'' he asks, in terms of damage to health, monetary costs to society, lost work hours, and impact on families. ``The first one has to be alcohol, and what makes people think legalization has been an answer?'' Kleiman argues for raising taxes on liquor and making drinking a licensed activity.
Mr. Miller advocates a ``constitutional alternative,'' disengaging the federal government from drug law enforcement and allowing each state to decide its own drug policy.
``Nationwide legalization will never happen,'' he says. ``If we offer a states rights alternative, then we'll see what happens on a small scale with many approaches. If New York wants to have free methadone to treat addicts, and it works, other states might do that too. The alternative simply gives back to states what rightfully belongs to them.''
Miller says some states would opt for decriminalization, others for more regulation. ``The beauty of the states approach is the incremental nature of it,'' he says. ``No state has to venture too far into the unknown and can change its approach when something somewhere else is more successful.''
Jonathon Freedman, the author of the recent book ``From Cradle to Grave: The Human Face of Poverty in America,'' says: ``I'm glad Elders had the courage to raise the issue, but even when a drug is legalized, like alcohol, it doesn't go away as a problem.''