The contradiction that has always been in our national drug policy is coming to light.
It began when a survey showed that more high school students drink beer than smoke pot. This prompted some members of Congress and others, including Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), to suggest to Barry McCaffrey, the president's drug czar, that beer be included among the substances teenagers are discouraged from using.
Mr. McCaffrey, and others involved in antidrug efforts, said no. Targeting beer might diffuse the message about other drugs, and anyway they lacked legal authority. Very well, then, said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D) of California, we'll give you the authority.
This touched off a massive, if underreported, lobbying battle on Capitol Hill, pitting the beer and wine industries in support of the administration against Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the surgeon general, and the American Medical Association. So far, the industry, led by the National Beer Wholesalers Association, is winning, but the argument isn't settled.
The trouble is in trying to outlaw some drugs, most prominently cocaine and marijuana, while regulating others equally or more dangerous, mainly alcohol and tobacco.
This "outlaw" policy includes public information campaigns against using the proscribed drugs and treatment programs for addicts, but its main thrust is enforcing prohibition by putting people in jail. This has resulted in the construction of more prisons, but it has not done much about drugs.
Those who defend this policy use the same logic heard so tiresomely about Vietnam during the Johnson administration: What we are doing is not working, so we ought to do more of it. As if to underline the point, McCaffrey has recommended an additional $1 billion in antidrug aid for Colombia and nearby Andean and Caribbean nations.
Greater harm is done by the drug trade than by the drugs themselves. Because the trade is illegal, dealers charge a premium to cover the risk of going to jail if they're caught. This is generating billions of dollars, all in cash and all beyond the effective control of governments. It is corrupting our society. It is the driving force of many of the gang wars and murders in our cities.
It is the motivation for a disproportionate percentage of income-generating crimes such as robbery, burglary, and theft committed by addicts looking for money to pay high drug prices. In contrast, violent crimes - murder and assault among others - are more likely to be committed by people under the influence of alcohol than of other drugs.
Drug money has made Colombia ungovernable and Mexico nearly so. It is responsible for much of the corruption of police and other public officials in drug-plagued countries.
This will surely spread to the United States if it is not stopped. Without the money provided by the drug trade, both the violence and the corruption will necessarily be greatly reduced. The way to remove the money is to make the trade legal so that it can be regulated.
Alcohol provides a useful guidepost. Used in excess, it is so disruptive of societies, families, and personal lives that we once tried to prohibit it - "a noble experiment" (Herbert Hoover's description) that gave its name to an era. The people this saved from the corner tavern did not offset the social harm that came with the rise of bootlegging and gangsterism - precisely what is happening today with respect to cocaine and marijuana. So we abandoned prohibition and turned to regulation.
We have, for example, made it illegal for teenagers to drink and for anybody to drive a car while drunk. People still flout the law to do these things. Six times more teenagers die from alcohol than from all illegal drugs combined, Mr. Lautenberg says - all the more reason to mount a vigorous campaign to deter them from drinking.
Consider the example of tobacco. When medical studies suggested a link between cigarettes and cancer, we did not react by outlawing cigarettes. Instead we began a steady, relentless campaign to persuade people to stop or not start smoking. This has dramatically reduced smoking. What would the black market be like if we'd taken the other route and tried to outlaw tobacco products?
Alcohol and tobacco are greater threats to the public health than cocaine and marijuana. We meet these threats with a little coercion (controlling the circumstances in which people drink and the places they smoke) and a lot of persuasion. Treasury agents poured a lot of booze down the drain during Prohibition yet people continued drinking.
Legalizing cocaine and marijuana won't solve the drug problem, but taking the money from the narcotraffickers will make it manageable.
*Pat M. Holt, is a Washington writer on foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society