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Published on Monday, March 27, 2000 in the Washington Post
How Goes The "War On Drugs"?
In Two Words, Not Well.
by William Raspberry
How goes the "war on drugs"?

In two words, not well. White House drug control policy director Barry McCaffrey tries his best to put a happy face on the "progress" of the campaign in his annual report. But the best he can manage (according to the Associated Press, which obtained an advance copy of the document) is a decline in youth marijuana use and drug-related crime during the past year.

On the other hand, cocaine and heroin remain widely available, and their prices have dropped to record lows. Methamphetamines pose a "serious potential nationally to become the next 'crack' cocaine epidemic." An estimated 454 metric tons of cocaine reached the United States in 1998--up from 396 metric tons a year earlier. Ah, but coca production is down in Bolivia and Peru.

Not particularly encouraging, and Ethan Nadelmann is not particularly surprised. Nadelmann is director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug-policy institute that is trying to promote what the director calls a more sensible approach.

He says the government's bottom line--its criterion for success or failure--is: How many people used illegal drugs last year? If the number is down, that's progress; if it's up, it's a setback.

What's wrong with that criterion? Plenty, says Nadelmann. The approach spawns zero-tolerance efforts to eliminate drug use, criminalizes behavior that is largely victimless, spawns "wars" that damage international relations, fills prisons with relatively harmless offenders--and costs a bundle of money that might be better used.

And what approaches would he substitute?

It will come as a surprise to those who have heard the passionate Nadelmann that he has no across-the-board answer. Certainly not "legalization," he says, though his push for decriminalizing certain categories of drug use is taken by his critics as advocating decriminalization.

"Let me propose a different bottom line," he said in a telephone interview last week. "Let the criterion be: Has the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug prohibition gone up or down?"

And what difference would that make?

"Remember the line Bob Dole used in the Clinton-Dole debates three years ago? Dole said in 1980, near the end of Jimmy Carter's term, there were some 40 million users of illegal drugs. Twelve years later (the Reagan and Bush era) less than half that number used drugs. Since 1992 (the start of the Clinton administration) drug use has started up again.

"Well, look at it with the criterion I propose. In 1980 40 million people used marijuana, and nobody used crack. Now crack and drug-related HIV-AIDS are a public scourge. In 1980 there were 50,000 people behind bars for breaking drug laws; today there are 400,000 people in jail for breaking drug laws, thanks to mandatory minimum sentences. In 1980 we were spending about $1 billion in federal money, and maybe double that in the states, to combat drugs. Today the federal antidrug outlays are $19.2 billion, and at least that much more is being spent by the states. I'm not talking about the physical and economic costs of crime. We will spend close to $40 billion this year just on drug enforcement."

But what would Nadelmann do?

For openers, he would drop the zero-tolerance approach and acknowledge that there is always going to be some drug use. The question is how to control the deleterious effects of that use--for instance, how to stem the spread of HIV and hepatitis.

Then he'd allow doctors to dispense methadone to combat heroin addiction. "We know that methadone maintenance is the most effective way of combating heroin addiction. We aren't sure about cocaine or alcohol. So let's do first what we know."

But come on: Isn't treating heroin addiction with methadone like treating a bourbon alcoholic with scotch? "More like treating a tobacco addiction with nicotine chewing gum or a patch," says Nadelmann.

And high on Nadelmann's list: Scrap the mandatory sentencing laws. "There's simply no public policy purpose being served by mandatory minimums, and it has nothing to do with my bottom-line question: How do you reduce the crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug prohibition?"

Not a bad bottom line.

2000 The Washington Post Company



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