The idea of the month -- to cure the hysteria of the year -- is to legalize illegal drugs. The idea has been broached by the mayors of Baltimore and Washington. It has made the front pages of The Post and The New York Times. It even boasts an academic champion in Ethan Nadelmann, a professor at Princeton University.
Now, legalization, unlike militarization, has a logic. (Militarization is Congress' cynical election-year ploy to order the military to play drug policeman and pretend to interdict the problem at the border.) Legalization is the cheap and easy solution. It works instantly. Well, definitionally. By redefining drug use as legal, it eliminates all drug-related crime.
Now, legalization does solve the drug enforcement problem. If drugs are legal, there are no profits to be made smuggling, no mafias and drug cartels to be enriched by the trade. No one goes to jail. We save billions in law enforcement and reduce corruption to boot.
What legalizers minimize is the catastrophic effect that legalization would have on public health, an effect that would far outweigh the savings in law enforcement. We had an inkling of that during Prohibition. Prohibition was a law enforcement disaster but, during its early years at least, a public health triumph. The rates of such alcohol-related illnesses as cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholic psychosis went down remarkably.
Well, you ask, if alcohol is now legal, what is the logic of prohibiting cocaine and heroin? No logic, just history. Alcohol use is so ancient and so universal a practice that it cannot be repealed. The question is not: Which is worse, alcohol or cocaine? The question is: Which is worse, alcohol alone or alcohol plus coke and heroin and PCP? Alcohol is here to stay. To legalize other drugs is to declare that the rest of the pharmacy is here to stay too.
Do we really want the additional and permanent burden of the other intoxicants, some of which are infinitely more addictive than alcohol? Since the January 1987 Amtrak crash in which 16 passengers were killed, there have been 37 railroad accidents involving drug use. With cocaine and heroin (and drug cocktails yet to be imagined) readily available, additional transportation deaths alone -- think just of the highway toll -- would dwarf the current number of drug-related deaths.
Even legalization proponents admit that it would increase drug use (though they say it is worth the price). First, legalization gives a social sanction. A public house dispensing crack invites crack use. Second, it makes drugs available without risk. Third, it makes them available at a price that must match or undercut the street price -- otherwise, the black market continues and the whole law-enforcement rationale for legalization is defeated. All three effects of legalization -- making available sanctioned, safe and cheap drugs -- would increase consumption. What we save in law enforcement we would have to spend many times over in traffic deaths, lost productivity and hospital costs.
What to do? For any problem that is ultimately cultural, there can be no quick fix. The answer has to be cultural, too, and changing attitudes takes decades. But it can be done. The great paradigm is the success of the now 25-year-old antismoking campaigns.
When I was a kid, the most glamorous image one could imagine was Bogie with a cigarette dangling from his lips. No more. Tobacco advertising is banned on TV, a clear violation of free speech and a good one. A relentless government campaign, finally picked up by Hollywood and the rest of the culture industry, has thoroughly deglamorized cigarettes. It simply isn't cool to smoke. It is considered a confession of personal weakness. This is not the image a person wants to project, and projecting an image is why people start to smoke in the first place. (Addiction is why they continue.)
The combination of moral suasion, deglamorization and mild repression -- segregating smokers, banning TV ads -- has led to a dramatic decline in tobacco usage in one generation. It was 40 percent when the surgeon general's first report was issued in 1964. It is 30 percent today.
Nancy Reagan's Just Say No to drugs campaign drew ridicule, but it recognized the only nonrepressive way to go after drugs. Do to them what was done to tobacco: deglamorize. The only way to reduce consumption is to reverse a cultural impression. In a culture of bright lights and big cities that cannot be quick and easy, but there is no other way.
Save one. If you want an overnight fix, the only one that will work is a dramatic attack on demand. When the Chinese communists came to power, they eliminated China's endemic opium problem rather quickly. They shot, imprisoned or "reeducated" anyone involved with opium.
That is a bit rough for Congress. Nonetheless, in the current hysteria, Congress wants to turn soldiers into drug cops and undermine the cherished American tradition of keeping the military out of police work. Well, if drug abuse is really such a mortal danger that civil liberties need to be trampled, there is a far more effective way to do it: start cracking down hard on users.
Not by putting them all in jail. There aren't enough cells to go around. But by imposing stiff sanctions against property -- heavy fines and confiscations. When a user has to calculate the price of coke at $100 per gram plus, say, a $10,000 premium thrown in, he might start looking for cheaper forms of recreation.
There you have it: four solutions. If you are desperate for a quick fix, either legalize drugs or repress the user. If you want a civilized approach, mount a propaganda campaign against drugs on the scale of the antismoking campaign. And if you are just a politician looking for reelection, send in the Marines and wave to the cameras.