Since I broached the subject of legalizing narcotics a few weeks ago, I have heard from lawyers, physicians, law-enforcement officers and dozens of readers who claim no special knowledge of pharmacology or law. Most of the responses have been from those who offer at least tentative support for legalization, and many of them expressed relief that they weren't the only ones who thought that way.
Today's column is about another response, this one from Dr. William Pollin, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Pollin understood that the proposal to legalize narcotics was by no means an assertion that the drugs are harmless. The notion, as expressed by Brant Coopersmith, whose views sparked my interest, is that the effort to curb drug abuse by interdicting drug traffic simply doesn't work and that the attempt exacerbates the problem by driving up the price to the point that illegal narcotics have become a multibillion-dollar industry that not only supports organized crime and corrupts government officials but also makes non-users the victims of addicts who will do anything for the price of a fix. Legalize the stuff, and the prices -- and profits -- come tumbling down.
Pollin won't argue the point. His fear, based, he says, on considerable research, is that legalization would massively increase the problem of drug abuse, drawing into addiction millions who steer clear now because the drugs are against the law. He especially fears massive cocaine addiction.
"There are between 4.5 and 5 million current cocaine users" -- current defined as use at least once in the past 30 days -- "and 60 million cigarette smokers," he said in a recent interview. "Now we know that cocaine is the most powerfully rewarding substance that exists in terms of drugs of abuse. We know that if you give experimental animals free access to cocaine, they will drop all other pursuits to get it -- even food and water. They will literally die -- not from the direct effects of the drug but from their abandonment of all other activity.
"Unlike heroin, or cigarettes, or alcohol, the liking for cocaine does not have to be learned. Laboratory animals, from the very first use, want it again."
So why is cigarette smoking 15 times as common as cocaine usage? "The difference," says Pollin, "is entirely the result of the success of the current flawed policy of making cocaine illegal and expensive. If cocaine were as freely available as cigarettes, everything we know suggests that the number of cocaine users would very, very rapidly increase by a tremendous factor -- at least tenfold.
"Thus, when one talks about legalizing narcotics, the only responsible way to do so is not to talk about (reducing) crime and the corrupting influence as though there is no disadvantage. We have to look at the trade-offs."
Similar problems exist, though to a lesser degree, with heroin and other widely abused substances, he said, but cocaine is special.
It is true, Pollin acknowledges, that there is room for alternatives between outright, over-the-counter legalization, on the one extreme, and the wildly unsuccessful effort at total proscription, on the other. But the dangers of legalization are so great, he insists, that we'd be better off leaving things as they are.
Nor does he have much faith in education as a means of curbing use. The fact that the 60 million cigarette smokers know that cigarette smoking can kill -- some 350,000 cigarette deaths a year -- demonstrates that powerful attractiveness, not ignorance, is the problem.
Maybe Pollin has reached his conclusions solely on the basis of scientific research, but to listen to him is to hear also a strong moral basis for his position. (He wouldn't decriminalize marijuana, either, though his cocaine arguments don't work in the case of marijuana.)
As for the harder drugs, what -- if legalization would be disastrous and prohibition doesn't work -- would he propose as a way of dealing with the corrupting influence of narcotics?
"As a citizen, I end up with the Churchillian definition of democracy," he said. "The current policy is tremendously flawed. But every policy I've been able to think about frightens me more."