On a night in October, actor Richard Dreyfuss managed to run his car (Mercedes) up a tree (palm) in Beverly Hills. The police, who say they found cocaine and another drug in his car, arrested him, booked him and charged him with possession. In due course something will be done with him -- probably nothing much.
It is a long way from Beverly Hills to Miami, but the two are connected by, of all things, cocaine. Until recently, Miami was the main port of entry for cocaine. It may not be anymore because the Reagan administration, with many press conferences and a photo opportunity featuring the president himself, has vowed to close it as a drug center. The president, as we all know, has declared war on drugs.
Of course, Richard Nixon did the same thing, as did Lyndon Johnson, and so did every president in memory. In fact, it has been the policy of the government to be unremittingly hostile to the use of drugs. It spends lots of money attempting to keep drugs out of the country, locking sellers up so that others can take their place, and encouraging foreign governments to end the growing of plants like marijuana, even though we can not accomplish the same thing in California.
At the same time, we have a wonderful de facto (if not de jure) policy of selectively enforcing the law. The real crime when it comes to drugs is not using the stuff, but, as Dreyfuss must know, selling the stuff. The thinking is that drugs can be cut off at the source: the seller. The result, though, is a policy that gives new dimensions to the word hypocrisy.
You could probably make an argument for the decriminalization of most drugs -- cocaine, heroin and especially marijuana. It is debatable whether we would be worse off than we are now, but it is a debate totally without political reality. Not only is the public spooked about drugs, but decriminalizing them represents such a leap into the unknown that it would represent not a victory for sanity, but a total defeat of all attempts to deal with the problem.
But the present policy is no victory for sanity, either. The government has been spending lots of money combating drugs with little success. The administration's 12 new antidrug task forces alone will probably cost $127 million and all they will do is push the drug trade around a bit -- maybe from Florida to Texas. If past is prologue, the task forces will make nary a dent in the nation's overall drug problem.
The reason for that is that the demand remains unchanged. As long as people are willing to pay incredible prices for drugs, someone will supply them. Arrest one dealer and another will take his place. Close Miami as a drug center, and it will move (as it already has) to New Orleans or Texas. With the sort of money that's at stake in the drug business, the old entreprenurial spirit will always triumph.
But much of the money in the drug business, especially cocaine, comes from satisfying the yen of recreational users. Dealing sternly with users might not collapse the drug market, but it would certainly put a dent in it. At the very least, it would send a message -- especially to kids -- that possession and use of drugs -- not just selling -- is a real crime.
As it is now, though, the clearest message on the government's drug policy comes from the likes of Dreyfuss and Richard Pryor -- not to mention the late John Belushi. His death was simply followed by his funeral and not -- until his widow screamed bloody murder--an intensive investigation of where he got the drugs. As for Pyror, whatever he may now say about his former habit, nothing speaks as eloquently as the fact that he used the stuff and spent nary a night in the clink as a result.
For the recreational user, drugs are hardly a neccessity. They could do without them, and probably would if the government was consistent in its policy and penalized users as well as sellers. If there is any validity to the theory that punishment is a deterrent, then it should certainly apply to illegal drugs. In that case, the one thing that would dent the drug problem is the certainty that the "high" of use will be followed by the "low" of jail. CAPTION: Picture, Richard Dreyfuss, Copyright (c) Columbia Pictures Inc.