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The Drug War Is No Solution

By Liam T. A. ford

THE media frenzy over President Bush's War on Drugs has abated somewhat since The Wimp went on TV and held up a bag of crack bought by federal agents in front of the White House last year. But as we approach the one-year anniversary of the set-up crack buy, we should all take a long hard look at this political and social fiasco. The best approach may be to declare victory and pull out; policy makers should seriously consider decriminalization.

Drug seizure such as the one depicted in a recent Coast Guard recruiting ad, although thrilling drama, tell us little about the reality behind the Drug War's propaganda. Two strategies stand out among all of the Drug War's misguided plans. First, America's most strangely-titled bureaucrat, Drug Czar William J. Bennett, has made much of targeting the "casual user" in an attempt to discourage drug use among those the administration views as the more productive members of the U.S. workforce. Second, conventional strategies for eradicating the use of drugs ignore important economic realities.

Instead of helping the casual user, current attempts to discourage drug use infringe upon workers' rights and ignore the realities of addiction. Current policy also actually encourages the distribution and use of more potent and dangerous drugs.

The issues regarding drug testing are legion. Suffice it to say that there are better and less intrusive ways to measure the effects of drugs upon employees' performance, ways that do not involve dubiously legal methods such as random urinalysis. New, relatively inexpensive computer tests have been devised to measure how well someone performs in relation to an initial performance test. Use of such tests would be less intrusive and bypass the civil liberties issues involved in random drug testing, and would measure competency rather than chemistry.

THE Throw-'Em-In-Jail-To-Keep-'Em-From-Using-It mentality which pervades Bennett's strategies and is behind the random testing approach shows a serious ignorance of the psychology of addiction. Drug addiction, like alcoholism, cannot be treated by forcing the user to stop through legal penalties. Only once they admit to themselves that they have a problem can addicts reform. An addict needs our sympathy and pity and will be less likely to come forward when there are heavy legal penalties for drug use.

While expressing a strangely mixed concern for those destroying themselves with drugs, American politicians continue to support the same illogical policies which have helped increase the potency of marijuana 600 per cent in the last 15 years.

For the past 100 years, drug and alcohol prohibitionists have been saying, let us take care of the drug problem the supply, we may be able to eradicate the use of this or that drug and thereby stop its use. Politicians still wish to see an "all-fronts assault on the drug epidemic," as Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) said recently.

The problem with this policy, says Mark Thornton, an economics professor at Alabama's Auburn University, is that it forces drug manufacturers to create a more potent and profitable drugs that often are more dangerous than the ones they replace. As the government increases the risk of producing and selling a drug, the risks involved in selling that drug increase (sometimes only temporarily). Thornton argues in a forthcoming book on America's drug laws that this provides an incentive for drug producers to manufacture drugs that can be transported more easily, which usually means more potent and compact drugs.

Thornton cites the example of the Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA) and other governmental agencies' attempts to eradicate the sale of marijuana in South Florida in 1984. The DEA was successful in almost completely drying up the pool of available marijuana, but suppliers of marijuana simply switched to supplying cocaine instead.

The old '60s myth that those who try marijuana eventually go on to heroin is true in some cases, but in general upgrading to more potent drugs is not the result of users' demands, but is a reaction to the relative availability and risk of using different types of illegal drugs.

As Thornton points out, most Americans are becoming more conscious of the risks of substance abuse. Instead of filterless Camels and hard liquor, more people are opting for filtered low-tar cigarettes and light beer. It would benefit those who do use drugs if they were able to freely purchase less potent and less long-lasting drugs whose quality (and danger) could be controlled, if they were legal.

As the profit involved in dealing drugs has increased, so has the amount of violence resulting from wars over dealers' turf. Without the profits they gain from selling illegal drugs, gangs in the inner cities of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and other cities would wield far less power and would be much less attractive to inner-city youths.

The government is pessimistic about the prospects of lowering the death toll. A recent Senate Judiciary Committee study projected that the U.S. murder rate will increase by 8 percent this year, in spite of the highly publicized War on Drugs. The number of drug-related murders in the U.S. has almost tripled since 1985, according to the FBI. The 1989 figure of 1402 deaths, however, underestimates the number of drug murders, as it does not include murders involving disputes over drugs, just those committed under the influence of drugs, according to The Washington Post.

As the War on Drugs continues, less harmful drugs will continue to be pushed out of the market by more harmful drugs, like synthetically manufactured methamphetamine, commonly called "ice." We also can expect more murders by those under the influence of unpredicable drugs and more killings by pushers intent on increasing their market.

The administration continues to push for a special intelligence agency to investigate drug-related activities, and the Drug Czar asks for the children of convicted drug users to be taken from their parents and turned into wards of the state. Meanwhile, the fundamental aspects of America's drug problem are ignored. Rather than allowing President Bush to pour billions of dollars down the bureaucratic rathole of seizure and drug embargo, perhaps the public, a majority of whom believe the War on Drugs cannot be won, should look more askance at the War's leaders. And they should begin to understand that habitual drug users, rather than vicious fiends deserving punishment, are people who desperately need our help.

Legalization or decriminalization may have its own inherent difficulties, but the current War on Drugs is failing, and will continue to fail.

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