I was, to be frank about it, waiting for the outraged reaction. I had, after all, written a column in which I presented (and implicitly supported) the views of a man who wants to legalize narcotics.
Brant Coopersmith, whose views were the subject of that column, wasn't proposing legalization as a matter of a person's right to do what he will with his own body. His concern was not with addicts at all, but with the rest of us.
The illegality of narcotics makes them expensive and forces addicts to turn to crime in order to support their habits. Laws designed to keep the drugs out of the hands of the few of us who are users have the perverse effect of imprisoning the rest of us. Legalize the stuff, thereby making it cheap, and the rest of us can feel free to walk the streets again.
I'm still waiting for the outrage. What I have been getting, from all over the country, from all kinds of people, is: Right on!
Legalization, says a St. Louis physician, would "reduce crime, if not the number of users, and make life much safer and serene" for the rest of us.
"The only result of making drugs illegal," notes the president of a Dallas energy firm, "is to make drug dealers rich. Maybe if you keep telling your story, someone will finally come around to this way of thinking in Congress, although I doubt it."
Then there was this one, from a California inmate. "I wholeheartedly agree about legalizing narcotics. I figure that at least half of all crimes are drug-related. And the reason for my belief is that I've been doing crimes for 20 years or more, and everyone I know has been doing the same. I've been to prison four times, and I'm 38 years old, and prison has done nothing to me except keep me off the streets. If heroin were legal, I would have no reason to steal."
So far, the only strong opposition I've heard (though a number of readers offered a variety of caveats) came from a Washington woman whose 17- year-old son had run away from a drug treatment center the day before the column appeared. She was convinced that Coopersmith's proposal would result in the death of people like her son.
I'm not, though a number of readers offered cautions that make sense to me. One reader wonders whether it might not be a good idea to make some distinctions among heavy drugs. Addiction to heroin, the drug of choice of inner-city addicts, is most likely to be supported by crime. But he isn't sure that legalizing cocaine, favored by addicts with money, would substantially reduce the number of robberies and burglaries.
A number of people fear that legalization would vastly increase the number of users. As for Coopersmith's notion that legalization would remove the incentive for the international marketing of narcotics, by making them far less expensive, one reader points to the popularity among youngsters of the cheap and dangerous PCP. But Coopersmith's concern is the safety of the nonusers, and there is no indication that PCP users commit many crimes to get they money to buy their drug.
A New Jersey clinical psychologist makes a different kind of point.
"We put up signs by contaminated wells or springs: 'Drink at your own risk.' We don't put armed guards at each well, or make laws against drinking polluted water, but anybody in his right mind won't willingly poison himself, no matter how thirsty he is. A society wise enough to permit freedom while consistently and persistently educating its citizens as to what is reasonable use would be wise enough to attack the poverty and inequality that underlies life's bitterness for so many who fall victim to the lure of the 'panacea.'
"When I see such things as the banning of advertising on addictive substances and practices, effective penalties for drunken driving, desubsidization of tobacco, deglamorization of smoking on TV and in the movies, and, particularly, early and effective education for schoolchildren and governmen-sponsored advertising against these substances and practices -- as extensive as what we now have for them -- then I'll be more sanguine about the consequences of legalizing yet another dangerous substance."