WHEN Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested that the United States ought to have a national discussion about legalizing drugs, she reaped a heavy storm of criticism, even by the standards of the lightning she normally attracts. It was also undeserved.
When a policy is not working, common sense suggests that it should be reconsidered. Clearly the nation's drug policy is not working. This is evident to everybody except those committed to the status quo with an almost religious faith. Drug use is essentially unchanged. The illegal drug trade flourishes and brings violence with it. A public clamor went up to withdraw troops from Somalia when 18 Americans were killed. That is about the number killed every two weeks in the nation's capital. Most of the victims are young black men and most of the murders are related to drugs.
The common suggestion for dealing with this scandal is more police on the streets and longer prison sentences. It has recently turned out that the police in Washington are themselves dealing drugs, and the prisons are so overcrowded that inmates convicted some time ago have to be released to make room for those convicted more recently. Build more prisons, it is said. That would be a good idea; but not many people, especially the more vociferous hard-liners, have thought through the budgetary implications. It is expensive to build prisons and even more expensive to staff and operate them.
The US drug policy has international repercussions. It has strained our relations with many countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. A drug lord in Colombia had the effrontery to offer to pay off that country's national debt in return for immunity. The US has spent a great deal of political capital, as well as hard cash, in pressing drug-producing countries to control the supply. In return, the leaders of those countries, notably Colombia and Mexico, have chided the US for not controlling the demand. This kind of argument leads to a dead end.
Current policy is also leading to a dead end in the US. Therefore, let us consider the problem anew.
Any drug policy needs two elements: It must deal with the effects of drugs on the people who use them, and it must deal with the larger social effects of the drug trade.
Drugs are bad. They impair mental and/or physical functions. And they are addictive. The current policy stresses education and counseling against use and treatment for addiction. Thus we try to reduce the demand, as we have been importuned by our friends abroad. But the effort is inadequate. Especially as it concerns treatment of addicts, it is underfunded and understaffed.
The current policy also tries to make drugs unavailable: Seize and destroy drug supplies, and send drug dealers to jail. Thus we try to reduce the supply. This effort is ineffective. Worse, it is counterproductive. It has made the drug trade profitable beyond the wildest dreams of avarice. The money generated is spreading a pervasive corruption and degeneration throughout our society.
It is hard to see how the drug problem can be solved as long as drugs are so profitable. One reason they are so profitable is the risk associated with them. Take away the risk - that is, the threat of jail - and you take away a good deal of the money. You probably also take away a good deal of the violence. (You could take away even more of the violence if you had a reasonable gun-control law, but that is a separate and equally controversial question.)
The implication of this argument is that the decriminalization of drugs would ameliorate many of the social problems stemming from drug use and the drug trade.
The objection to decriminalization is that it would make drugs more available - and at a cheaper price - and therefore encourage consumption. One source of this argument is the considerable law enforcement establishment, which has a bureaucratic self-interest in perpetuating the war on drugs. But even discounted to allow for self-interest, the argument deserves to be taken seriously - up to a point. The argument begins to break down when considered in light of our experience with alcohol and tobacco. These two drugs probably do at least as much damage to public health as all other drugs combined. Both are legal. The sale of alcohol is stringently regulated, that of tobacco less so. Seven decades ago we had an experience with alcohol strikingly similar to what we are going through today with respect to marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and the like. So we abandoned Prohibition. This did not cure alcoholism, but it did cure many of Prohibition's side effects.
Cigarette smoking has declined dramatically over a period of 30 years as a result of constant, unrelenting repetition in dozens of forums of its health hazards. This, too, offers a useful model for dealing with drugs.
Dr. Elders made a serious, sensible suggestion. It is worthy of more thoughtful discussion than it has yet received. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.