As Americans begin the countdown to the November presidential election, recent polls show that congressional candidates cannot afford to ignore voters’ growing anger and frustration with the nation’s losing battle against illicit drugs. President Ronald Reagan’s so-called war on drugs is costing U.S. taxpayers between $10 billion and $14 billion each year. But drugrelated crime remains endemic in U.S. cities, courts are backed up with drug cases and the campaign has failed to stem the flow of billions of dollars into traffickers’ pockets. As the candidates scramble to take ever-tougher positions on U.S. antidrug policies at home and abroad, however, some critics of the Reagan administration’s strategy have taken a radical stand. Their proposal: that the government make most—or even all—drugs legal.
Although there are many often-conflicting opinions on how legalization would work, its proponents share two fundamental convictions: that the policy of prohibition in force since the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 has
failed, and that existing drug laws are even more damaging to U.S. society than the drugs themselves. Attempts to prohibit drugs, they say, have been both counterproductive and ruinously expensive. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke first raised the legalization issue last April when he called for a national debate on the subject. But some politicians—especially those facing a fall vote—have rejected proposals to legalize such drugs as marijuana, cocaine and heroin. New York Republican Senator Alphonse D’Amato, for one, said that such a step would turn Americans into a “society of zombies.”
Proponents of legalization, however, including conservative Nobel Prizewinning economist Milton Friedman, contend that the harm drugs do to society stems predominantly from the fact that their use is illegal. Unlike the last major discussion about legalization, in the 1970s when its advocates argued that such drugs as marijuana were less dangerous than alcohol, most supporters now focus on the serious
economic consequences that are generated by epidemic drug use. Those experts note that drug-related problems cost U.S. workers at least $40 billion in lost earnings in 1983 alone. And they add that even strict enforcement of drug laws has done little to ease those losses. Said Ethan Nadelmann, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University: “Intensive crackdowns in urban neighborhoods, like intensive anticockroach efforts, do little more than chase the menace a short distance away to infect new areas.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation figures show that, in 1986, 824,100 drug arrests were made by state, county and city drug-enforcement officials alone. And public officials acknowledge that the sheer number of arrests has crippled the U.S. court system and overloaded prisons. Still, even liberal Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who has led opposition to the Reagan administration’s drug policies, says that he is opposed to legalization, on the grounds that the government has not begun to exhaust alternatives to that proposal.
During the past 15 years, Canadian researchers and policy makers have followed a more moderate course. The 1973 royal commission on the nonmedical use of drugs, headed by Gerald Le
Dain, now a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, concluded that alcohol posed a more serious threat to Canadians than illicit drugs, and that harsh drug laws were more damaging than the drugs themselves. The government of the day, under Liberal
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, did not act on the commission’s recommendation that jail sentences should not be imposed for simple possession of marijuana and hashish.
Still, experts credit the commission with charting a liberal course for the
antidrug effort in Canada, in part by persuading judges to impose more lenient sentences. Said Dr. Patricia Erickson, head of drug policy research at the Toronto-based Ontario Addiction Research Foundation: “We have emphasized a variety of strategies, including genuine efforts to educate and persuade people not to harm themselves with drugs.” There is evidence that those strategies are paying off. A 1987 survey in Ontario, the only province that systematically surveys drug use among students, showed that marijuana and hashish use among highschool students had dropped to 15.9 per cent in 1987 from 31.7 per cent in 1979.
Many Americans, too, now argue that education—not prohibition—may be the best long-term hope for a solution to that nation’s drug problems. At the same time, others are demanding even stricter penalties for drug users and dealers, as well as increased police and military intervention. But for its advocates, legalization is not simply one alternative approach to the war on drugs. In the aftermath of a battle that now appears to be lost, it may prove to be the only answer to a crisis that the nation can no longer afford.
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