He can hit, he can steal, he can turn the double play. And, he suffers, he told the press, from "a disease called chemical dependency." That is Baltimore Orioles second baseman Alan Wiggins speaking, explaining his recent suspension from baseball for treatment of cocaine addiction.
"It's a disease. It's not a moral issue. It took me a while to learn that for myself." One has the distinct impression that, in fact, Wiggins didn't learn it for himself, but had to be taught the new dispensation. What he picked up is more than a euphemism. It is now conventional wisdom. Drug abuse has been elevated, if that is the right word, to the status of disease.
It is a polite fiction, which, like other forms of politeness, has a humane purpose: in this case, to make things easier on the sufferer. It assures him that he is not to blame. He is a victim, and victims are absolved of responsibility for their condition. We don't hold someone responsible for his colon cancer. We once held him responsible for his drug abuse. How now to reproach someone stricken with "a disease called chemical dependency"?
The abuser gets more than a wink. If he follows the rules, he gets a pat on the back. The repentant cocainer, just graduated from the Betty Ford Center or back from a stint in an English jail, is accorded a certain celebrity. Fine. Overcoming addiction is hard, and one does not want to dismiss the achievement. But it does make for a pedagogical problem. A few years ago cocaine was chic. Now it is chic to be an ex-cocaine user. This is certainly progress, but still not a terribly good example for kids, since you have to get through the first to achieve the second.
The medical model -- the user as victim -- makes for more than bad pedagogy. It makes for bad policy. Because if drug abuse is not the consumer's fault, then it must be the producer's. Where then to fight drug abuse? In Peru and Bolivia, or as far away from our shores as possible.
The result is supply-side drug control, aimed especially at the pusher with poor English. The House of Representatives is moving smartly on this front. It voted last month to cut off aid to Bolivia and Peru unless they cut back on coca production.
It happens that Bolivia and Peru are perhaps the two most fragile democracies in this hemisphere. Bolivia, home to 185 military coups in 140 years, has just this week sworn in a rarity: an elected president. Peru, fighting off the most barbaric bunch of woolly ("Shining Path") revolutionaries this side of Pol Pot, just swore in its newly elected president on July 28.
The House is not daunted. It approved Rep. Charles Rangel's proposed aid cutoff anyway. It will boldly impoverish a friendly country and undermine its democracy for . . . what? For a gesture. The cutoff is guaranteed to achieve nothing. Slow down cocaine production in Bolivia and Peru, and it starts up in previously undeveloped areas, such as Ecuador and the Amazon river basin, where Brazilians are now cultivating a small coca- producing tree called epadu. What now? Cut off Brazil and Ecuador too?
The Rangel idea does solve one problem, our perennial dilemma about who should get foreign aid. By his logic, only one regime in the hemisphere is deserving, because only one country is free of the drug trade. Gen. Pinochet will be pleased with the news.
Let's face facts. We live in a market economy where demand finds supply. Why should drugs be different? If you stamp out coca production in the Andes it will migrate, as it is migrating, to the Amazon and elsewhere. You don't attack a drug problem with a foreign aid bill. It can make you feel good and destroy a few democracies in the process, but it won't solve the problem.
The problem begins at home. "Bolivia and Peru must understand," thunders Rangel, "that as a nation we are serious about narcotics control." Trouble is, Beverly Hills and the Bronx don't believe we are serious. And who can blame them, so long as we pretend that the user is some innocent victim either of nefarious Latins or of Wiggins' Disease.
What drug abuse has lost is the social stigma -- still the best policing agent for "victimless" behaviors -- that it enjoyed, say, 30 years ago. Restoring that stigma will require a little plain speaking. We could start with a moratorium on disease-talk.
And on infantilizing the user. If the House really believes its own hyperbole -- that drug abuse is a calamity that threatens "productivity, public health, education . . . and national security" -- then the drug user, who collaborates in creating this calamity, deserves some social sanction too. At least as much, say, as the drunk driver.
Why then don't the politicians push for strictly enforced penalties for drug use? Because Americans like their drugs. And they vote. Bolivians don't vote, at least not for the U.S. Congress. And, if the House has its way, not very much longer for their own Congress either.