Elders Sparks Debate on Legalization of Drugs Proponents Say Legalization Would Take Crime out of Drug Activity

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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. …