Article excerpt

Tough drug laws may have limits

It's hardly news that this country's war on drugs has bogged down with neither victory nor end in sight.

But recent news items are startling in the way they illustrate just how far the country is from having any real consensus on how to fight the war.

Late last week , House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that the answer is to lock up for life those who take drugs across borders or produce drugs in commercial quantities. For second-time offenders, Gingrich says, the penalty should be execution.

But on Monday, a non-partisan research group declared that long mandatory sentences are less effective in reducing cocaine consumption than shorter sentences combined with aggressive enforcement and seizure of dealers' assets.

In addition, the Rand Corp. concludes that long mandatory sentences are less cost-effective than either shorter sentences or drug-treatment programs in reducing cocaine-related crime.

The reasoning and research behind Rand's conclusions are fairly complex, but part of the outcome stems from the extraordinarily high cost of keeping dealers in prison for lengthy periods.

This is not to suggest that Rand is necessarily correct, although its work, at first glance, seems more thorough and thoughtful than the speaker's.

The Daily Herald has long been wary of tougher mandatory sentences. That, in part, is because they rob the courts of judicial discretion. It is also, in part, because the sentences are adopted by legislators whose eagerness to please voters often exceeds their skill or interest in determining how effective the measures will be or whether they will spawn unintended consequences.

If other researchers produce work that runs counter to Rand's, then it, by all means, should also be weighed as part of the public-policy debate on drugs.

At the very least, however, the Rand Corp. …