DRUGS America Looks for the Way Out : Nothing Else Has Worked; Abolish the Prohibitions : We have poured billions into the war against drugs, to no avail. Decriminalization would free us from so much waste.

Robert W. Sweet is a federal judge in New York.

Having been a federal trial judge for the past 11 1/2 years, I have experienced our society's evolving drug problem in a direct and painful way. I have tried numerous drug cases, imposed stiff sentences. And the drug problem is getting worse.

Estimates of the size of the illegal drug market in the United States vary, but $150 billion is not outrageous. Profits are huge, up to 5,000% of cost. Drug use reportedly drains $60 billion annually from our economy. The Federal Reserve has estimated that $125 billion in currency is unaccounted for, much of it having gone underground in the drug trade. It has been calculated that between 35 million and 40 million Americans consumed an illegal drug in 1988; 6.5 million are said to be severely dependent.

Not surprisingly, more and more Americans feel that illegal drug use is the country's No. 1 problem. A CBS/New York Times survey conducted last fall found that 54% of Americans feel that way; four years earlier, only 1% did.

Congress has responded by engaging in what Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) has called a "feeding frenzy." It added $1.1 billion to President Bush's revised request for drug-war money; in all, $3.2 billion above the President's original request. This year, Washington will spend $9.5 billion on the drug war, including $1.3 billion to build or expand federal prisons. Nearly 1 million people are behind bars in the United States--a record. Of the 1.2 million drug-related arrests in 1988, roughly 75% were for possession, typically of marijuana.

In short, the present policy of prohibition has not diminished the drug-abuse problem.

What has created this frustrating, debilitating and destructive situation is money, or the lack thereof. One of every four youngsters in America will experience poverty in the 1990s. A decade ago, one in nine faced similar economic circumstances. The loss of hope signified by this trend is our real problem. It is this outlook that breeds cocaine, crack and heroin addiction and its associated culture. Riding shotgun to a drug deal, or acting as a lookout while the deal comes down can make a teen-ager $50, $100 or $300--immediately. It is the risk of capture--or death--that creates this extraordinary reward.

Drug prohibition thus produces two outcomes that directly undercut its goal: It creates an economic incentive for drug dealers to increase narcotics use, and by forbidding use, it enhances the appeal of certain chemicals.

If what we are doing is not working, it is time to abolish the prohibition, to stop treating mind alteration as a crime.

Decriminalization would take the profits out of illegal drugs, eliminate a major reason for gang violence and killings and remove drug dealers from street corners, much as the repeal of Prohibition ended bootlegging and its related crimes. Users could be identified and helped. The billions of dollars now spent on enforcement and imprisonment could be channeled into drug research, education and treatment.

Decriminalization would also have to be accompanied by a renewed government commitment to job creation, education, health care and housing to create hope where it does not now exist--principally in the inner cities. If we are unwilling to be our brother's keepers, we will have to become our brother's jailers. That's unacceptable in a nation that prizes personal liberty above all else.

Continued prohibition, it is now clear, will not prevent the development of a potentially more potent, addictive and dangerous drug than crack, itself the successor of heroin, angel dust and powder cocaine. Indeed, there is evidence that "ice," a synthetic drug, is fast becoming the drug of choice in some areas.

The existence of crack babies and the abandonment of parental responsibility demonstrates the failure of prohibition as well. Keeping crack illegal, the evidence shows, will not break this vicious cycle of dependence and abandonment.

After appropriate study, then, Congress should set federal standards for dispensing and taxing drugs, help state and local governments identify users, pay for research on alternative blocking agents for addicts and make some treatment available for every addict, including medical intervention. Resale and distribution of drugs outside legal channels would be a federal crime. And since ending wide-scale prohibition would proportionally free up more enforcement and court resources, punishment for violators would be swifter, surer and equally--or perhaps even more--punitive than today.

The young, up to age 21, would be prohibited from buying or using drugs. More than the threat of imprisonment would probably be needed to enforce this prohibition. Anti-drug education and special outreach programs would be necessary, including hefty stipends for athletic, academic and vocational achievement.

Since people who currently want to use drugs don't have much difficulty in finding them, perhaps abolishing prohibition would not add to the number of users. But even if the number of addicts were to increase, there is still the moral question of whether it is right to prohibit individuals from using mind-altering substances. Nineteen years of Prohibition showed that it was morally wrong to prevent Americans from drinking a mood-altering substance that has been part of our heritage throughout Western civilization.

Lester Grinspoon of the Harvard Medical School puts it another way: "We have to believe that, in the long run, people will respond in a rational way to the availability of substances with a potential for destruction. There will always be casualties with alcohol. There will always be death."

In the end, the moral issue pivots on questions of self-control and responsibility. Government must punish those who do unto others what others abhor. When government gets involved in protecting people from themselves, the opportunities for mischief are plentiful.

The drug problem cannot be solved by guns and tanks and by the rhetoric of war. Rather, faith, moral suasion, family commitment and individual responsibility are far more likely to produce the goal we seek: a drug policy that is consistent with our principles and ideals.

We must think anew, reallocate our resources and be willing to sacrifice so that dignity and ability can alter the mind of our youth instead of crack, ice and heroin. In short, abolish prohibition.

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