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Bennett’s Drug Plan

When complex social pathology is mistaken for a police problem, the result is the sort of plan that William J. Bennett, the Bush Administration’s new drug czar, put forward last week as the Administration’s response to Washington, D.C.'s, catastrophic crack cocaine problem.

As that hideously addictive substance has spread through the capital’s poor, most black inner city over the past few years, the city’s murder rate has climbed to seven times the disgraceful national average. Police say drugs were found on half the 372 people killed in Washington last year; one study concluded that five out of six murders in the district involve drugs. When so obvious an insult is offered to public safety right under the nose of so many powerful people, something has to be done.

As Bennett proposes it, that something is a hazy pastiche of police measures, the centerpiece of which is construction of a new jail to detain 500 individuals and a new prison in which 700 convicts can be confined. The efficacy of this building program can be measured against the fact that 46,000 people were arrested in the District of Columbia last year. Bennett’s plan also would spruce up and secure public housing facilities, in part by making it easier to evict tenants suspected of selling drugs. Finally, he would provide small sums for a modest anti-narcotics educational program and to allow 300 additional outpatients to be treated in drug- abuse clinics.

It is this lack of serious attention to treatment, education and the economic want in which drug abuse thrives that marks Bennett’s plan as a public relations gesture. Seductive as the stuff may be, there is no crack epidemic among middle-class Americans. When our urban underclass has the decent life that adequate health care, education, housing and jobs provide, most of its members will not seek release in suicidal chemical oblivion.

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If someone proposed spending $80 million to achieve these latter goals in Washington, it would be called social welfare and become the object of controversy. When someone proposes, as Bennett has, to spend $80 million simply to arrest people and throw them into prison, it’s called doing something--even though it isn’t.

President Virgilio Barco Vargas of Colombia said last week that the demand for drugs in the United States “is the greatest single threat to democracy in our hemisphere.” The threat will last as long as interdicting supply has a higher priority than the more complex job of moderating demand.


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