Lurma Rackley, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's press secretary, urged compassion for addicts of all kinds yesterday, but stirred a controversy by comparing dependency on cocaine to drinking alcoholic beverages and smoking cigarettes.
Rackley, in a letter to the editor published in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post, charged that the newspaper "continues to heap criticism on Mayor Barry," whom she suggested was waging a "heroic" struggle to overcome substance-abuse problems.
Describing "booze and cigarettes" as the "cousins" of cocaine, Rackley contended that society should be just as compassionate to cocaine users as it is to those who are addicted to alcohol and nicotine. She noted that "more deaths in our country can be traced to alcohol and cigarettes than to all the illegal drugs combined."
"A drug's legal status is not the only thing we should use to determine our attitude toward its use," Rackley said in her letter, which was printed beside an editorial chastising her for her comments.
"Recovering addicts -- no matter what they are recovering from -- should not be made to feel worse about themselves," Rackley wrote.
Some drug-abuse counselors and community leaders said yesterday that while they agreed with Rackley about the need for compassion, they believe her letter was misguided because they thought it minimized the risks of even occasional use of cocaine.
William M. Harris, who directs drug counseling for the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, described the letter as "a totally ludicrous statement."
"I see the devastation cocaine causes every day," he said. "You can't be a recreational crack head. The threat is much greater than alcohol or cigarettes."
Hassan Jeru-Ahmed, who directs the Black Man's Development Center in Northwest Washington, which treats about 40 recovering addicts each week, said Rackley's letter was a "mistake," though he understood her call for sympathy.
"It's too dangerous to play with words like that," he said. "Our young people are lured to drugs by adults who hint that it is okay."
Some drug counselors said a key task in treating cocaine addicts is convincing them of the imminent danger of any cocaine use, which the experts said they never compare to drinking beer or smoking cigarettes.
"You should not lessen the seriousness of this drug," Harris said. "Think of boarder babies, hurt because their mothers did cocaine."
The Rev. John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church downtown, said cocaine's threat to users, their families and communities far exceeds the harm of other addictive substances such as alcohol or nicotine. Civic leaders have a responsibility to condemn its use, he said. "There simply is a dual standard; we expect more from pastors, priests and public officials," said Steinbruck, whose congregation is active in fighting a variety of social ills.
"Not to understand that misses a fundamental point of leadership in government."
Rackley, who was besieged by reporters wanting a fuller explanation of her letter, said she did not ask for Barry's approval before writing it. "It was my very personal view," Rackley said.
"I was trying to say we need to look at addiction in a broader fashion," Rackley added."We should look at the national preoccupation with drugs of all sorts, illegal and legal."
Rackley said her letter was in part a reaction to attempts by some in Washington to make Barry "the scapegoat for the whole crisis" of drugs in the city.
"He has said, 'I'm sorry.' He has said no one could be any more pained than him. Do they want him to cry and grovel and mea culpa some more? Enough already.
"The legality of a substance should not be the only thing that gauges our reaction, " Rackley said. "The society is hypocritical if we allow one drug to be the national pastime -- booze -- and not look at this other thing -- cocaine -- as a health problem."
Rackley, noting she maintains a strict ban against cigarettes and alcohol in her Northern Virginia home, said she was motivated to write the letter in part because some of her friends are trying to cope with chemical dependency problems of their own.
"Even if I didn't have friends who were grappling with the problems, and even if I didn't work for the mayor, I still would feel strongly about this issue," Rackley said.