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
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. …