Summary: Critics say that we're losing the war on drugs and that treating drug use as a medical and social problem would get better results than the current law enforcement approach. But opponents say that such quasi-legalization would result in higher levels of drug abuse. As the debate intensifies, a few cities are experimenting with programs such as needle exchanges.
When Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested in December that the United States should give some thought to reconsidering its drug policies - and even discuss legalization - the reaction was Swift and furious. The statement made headlines, the Clinton administration quickly proclaimed its opposition to such an idea and the Christian Coalition called for Elders's resignation, accusing her of wanting to "raise the white flag and surrender."
Despite the uproar Elders's remarks were not an isolated case of heresy. Increasingly, people are calling for that same "white flag of surrender" and questioning the very idea of a war on drugs. The movement to change current drug policies comprises various and often conflicting positions - from calls for legalization to experimental programs offering clean needle to addicts - but they share an underlying consensus: Their advocates consider current drug policies a failure.
According to proponents of change, the drug war costs taxpayers more than $30 billion a year and has led to massive overcrowding of state and federal prisons. The celebrated arrests of drug kingpins are Pyrrhic victories, as eager replacements keep the estimated $50- to 100-billion-a-year drug trade flourishing. Street dealers, and those who do business with them, seem oblivious to the possibility of death or imprisonment. And the bodies of both dealers and users keep piling up. In cities such as Detroit, Washington and even Portland, Ore., the numbers of slayings have reached record highs.
Few Americans favor legalization - only 14 percent, according to a 1993 Gallup Poll. Fewer than 5 percent who are age 12 or older say they use marijuana, according to a 1991 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and fewer than 1 percent say they use cocaine. People from ages 17 to 25 tend to use drugs more often than others, and within this group, fewer than 1 percent say they have ever tried heroin. Despite such hopeful statistics, drugs remain a major concern for well over 75 percent of parents, says Gallup.
Whatever the reality, those opposed to legalization maintain that drugs are far too dangerous for people to have easy access to them; they point out that the government regularly protects citizens from dangerous and toxic substances. In the words of John Lawn, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, "Drugs aren't bad because they're illegal. They're illegal because they're bad."
Opponents also claim that drug legalization will lead to more, not less, crime. People under the influence of drugs commit about half of all violent crimes, according to Justice Department statistics, but alcohol is the most common drug in such cases.
Lee Brown, head of the Office of National Drug Control policy, has acknowledged setbacks in the war on drugs, but blames them on underfunding or misdirected efforts. He has called for more money for treatment and education programs, as opposed to law enforcement efforts.
It's a position also embraced by Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York, who contends that even the benefits derived from legalization would not be justified by the "lives wasted, futures shattered" by drugs.
Marshall Wittman, legislative affairs director for the Christian Coalition, believes that "the government must send a clear, unambiguous message that drug use is a pathology that will not be tolerated." Wittman maintains that the possibility of legalizing drugs, or indeed any deviation from current policies, would be to "send a mixed message" about drug use. …