DRUGS America Looks for the Way Out : Legitimizing Enslavement Will Not Reduce Its Harm : Our drug laws also declare our moral assumptions. Do we want to approve the murderous pursuit of nirvana?

Midge Decter's writings on American mores include the 1975 book, "Liberal Parents, Radical Children."

There is something truly seductive in the argument for legalizing drugs. Just when we, as a society, are feeling ever more helpless in the face of the drug problem, we are being told that it can be "solved," so to speak, by definition. Decriminalize the use of drugs, runs the argument, and not only do you wipe out a whole class of criminal users, you also, with one stroke, knock the bottom out of the vast and evil international industry that so profitably battens on them. Like all would-be engineers of human conduct, the drug legalizers sorely tempt us with their images of some clean and manageable fix (pun very much intended).

Only one problem upsets the neatness of this kind of thinking. The trouble with drugs is not that they are illegal but that they destroy people. First, of course, they destroy their habitual users morally, physically and socially. Next, they inflict great harm on the users' loved ones, especially the children, and most especially the children of using mothers, the mental and physical brutality of whose lot in life we have only just begun to fathom. And they destroy neighborhoods, communities--who knows, perhaps whole cities may soon go down.

The reason for the galloping chaos of drugs, it need hardly be pointed out, is that the people who use them will not--or as they tend to insist, cannot--stop. Drugs, after all, begin as a source of totally effortless and absolute euphoria. Of nothing else on earth, not even (to name some other popularly acknowledged addictions) alcohol or gambling or sex, can this be said. Once such euphoria has been tasted, it clearly cannot, without a great deal of moral strength--indeed, precisely the brand of moral strength whose absence leads to addiction in the first place--be put out of mind.

From where, then, would drug users gather the energy and discipline to undergo the suffering of renunciation if the surrounding community refused to support them by imposing its standards upon them?

In the 1960s, let us remember, hordes of children of the enlightened middle class were left to molder in a hallucinogenic purgatory, some never to return, because the community in which they were being reared refused to penalize, or even just voice disapproval of, them. No one speaks well of drugs any more; but for the ghetto and barrio youngsters whose lives are daily sacrificed to the Moloch of feel-good, something not all that different from approval is offered them by the social-welfare intellectuals--apology for their behavior on grounds of poverty, unemployment, etc.

Thus the people who, for instance, like to make fun of the "Just Say No" campaign do not understand the importance, especially when it comes to resisting the siren call of instant ecstasy, of being socially and culturally affirmed in one's efforts.

By the same token, people who say that the outlawing of drugs should be repealed--because it has failed to solve the problem and has, on the contrary, only created more crime--do not really understand the role of the law. Many laws, to be sure, are merely instrumental; like traffic laws, they expedite and smooth daily commerce. But laws are also the means by which a society both declares and teaches its moral assumptions, its understanding of the way people are supposed to live and arrange their affairs. Laws are enacted, therefore, not only to define and punish guilt but also to confirm the virtue of law-abiding.

What would happen if drugs were to be legalized? Perhaps dealers would have to confine themselves to gambling, prostitution and selling protection. Just perhaps--and perhaps from the point of view of the law-enforcers--that would be an improvement.

As far as the addicts are concerned, however, particularly the young ones, the legitimization of their enslavement would hardly serve to lessen it. Moreover, along with suffering the consequences--in some, possibly many, cases unto death--of a murderous, out-of-control pursuit of nirvana, these kids would be receiving society's ultimate message of indifference to their fate. As it is, their lives and the lives of their unfathered and unmothered children are already forfeit to the idea that they are not responsible for themselves. Remove all sanctions against their addiction, and you might as well be inviting them to put bullets through their brains.

Then there are all those other kids, the ones who don't do drugs, who are afraid to, or think it's wrong to. What message will they get? That being strong is no better than being weak, being good no better than being bad? They are neglected enough in all our social theories these days, the children who behave themselves and do what their society asks them to do. We would deliver another blow to their self-valuation, such as the legalization of drug use, at our peril.

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