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More on the War on Drugs

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To the editors:

Some of the arguments Eric Scigliano uses in his article on the legalization of drugs (Nov. 18) raise serious questions. He states, for instance, that the legalization of pot in Alaska has not produced more users. On the contrary, according to the head of Alaskans for DrugFree Youth of Juneau, "Alaskan children's drug use is two to three times that of national averages." Now Scigliano may have a more reliable source, but he didn't quote a source, he merely made an assertion.

(I'm surprised the Reader let him get away with that.)

On another score, Scigliano quotes a sociologist who says, "legalize the drugs and society will find its normative system to live with them, the way it's learned to live with alcohol." Have we learned to live with alcohol? There are more than 10 million known alcoholics and no doubt many more hidden away in this country. It doesn't seem to me to be a norm to aspire to. The consequences of alcohol represent our biggest health care problem, the biggest cause of auto accidents, a leading cause of death, and an astronomical $117 billion estimated in costs to the nation in lost work time, accidents, health care, and so on. If these are the conditions, and they most likely are, that would result from the legalization of drugs, it doesn't seem to me a system we want to learn to live with.

Furthermore, Scigliano dismisses lightly the idea that more drug users, which he admits will result from legalization, will lead to more addicts. But the fact is that a certain portion of drug users will always end up, whether for physiological, sociological, or psychological reasons, as addicts, according to all the experts. And while it takes about 15 years to become a full-fledged alcoholic, it only takes 7-15 months to get addicted to cocaine. While only an estimated 10 percent of the nation's drinkers are drunkards, some experts say that as many as 75 percent of cocaine users are addicts.

Scigliano also dismisses too lightly the idea that legalizing drugs sends the wrong message, especially to kids. If the goal is actually to reduce drug use, we cannot possibly further this goal by aspiring to the "same normative system" as we now have for alcohol. If drugs are so bad for you that we urgently need to reduce their use, kids and adults will logically ask, why is the government making it easily available? It doesn't make for a very logical argument.

There is no question that legalization would reduce, though not eliminate, as the case of England shows, the insane costs of the illegal drug trade with its massive criminal activity, which would be a great benefit. But if legalization would, as seems likely, raise drastically the number of users and addicts, it seems to me that is not what most of us would call cost-effective. It sounds to me as if Scigliano's experience with drugs is limited to laughing "helplessly at stupid jokes." Has he ever seen kids strung out on crack, a cocaine addict whose nose is swollen to obscure her face and who is reduced to the merest survival, a drunk whose kids are afraid and hide from him, a heroin addict wandering the streets helplessly? Before he dismisses the human element in legalization, Scigliano ought to visit a drug treatment center, Perhaps he would change his mind and instead urge that the federal government put its money where its mouth is and open an all-out educational campaign to reduce the demand for drugs and put money into treatment centers instead of interdiction, which is clearly useless. Perhaps he would become an advocate of those stuck in poverty in the ghettos for whom drugs are a balm for their misery, instead of advocating that drugs be made more easily available to them. It is true, as his article implies, that middle-class pot smokers would benefit from legalization, but the real victims of drugs would only be harmed.

Florence Hamlish Levinsohn

Chicago

Eric Scigliano replies:

Florence Levinsohn mixes apples and oranges, and coke and pot, in her characterization of the Alaska experience. Sure Alaska has a higher incidence of drug use than most other states (though probably not "two to three times that of national averages"). The reason, however, is not its allowing adults to possess, in their homes, up to four ounces of marijuana--a statute triggered by a state court decision that found prosecution for small-scale personal possession an unconstitutional infringement of privacy. It's due rather to the same frontier factors that give Alaska some of the highest rates of suicide, divorce, and alcoholism in the country. As George Mundell, regional program coordinator for the Alaska State Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, puts it, "We have a lot of risk takers up here. In comparison with national averages, experimentation with drugs is very widespread, but chronic use is not unusually high. It's basically because we're a very young population--our average age is 25. If you want to drive your drug-abuse averages down, import lots of retired folks. Plus per capita income is relatively high here, even with oil prices down. And living up here has certain stresses--long winter nights, a sense of boredom, a sense of anonymity for many people away from their families--that may contribute."

The best drug-use data in Alaska, as in many places, comes from the high schools. In 1983, soon after its legislature approved personal marijuana possession, the state surveyed 4,000 students, 49.4 percent of whom said they'd smoked grass. This year it conducted a similar survey; 53 percent have smoked grass. Fewer report taking heroin, cocaine, tranquilizers, or depressants than in 1983. Use of hallucinogens has grown some, and nearly 60 percent more Alaskan kids now get high on gasoline, spray paint, and other toxic inhalants--the drug abuse that, along with cigarette smoking, most worries state drug officials. Hardly a legislatively induced drug epidemic.

My apologies to Levinsohn if my tongue-in-cheek hypothesis of a surgeon general's label-warning marijuana smokers of decreased sperm counts, chromosomal damage, and "laughing helplessly at stupid jokes" suggested that those are the only possible ill effects of that drug (though they're grounds for caution in themselves). Marijuana, like every drug now banned or sanctioned, bears side effects and the potential for abuse, though less than do alcohol, tobacco, and Valium. Levinsohn does University of Washington sociology professor Roger Roffman an injustice in extracting his paraphrase of the other main argument (along with crime stopping) for legalization: "Legalize the drugs and society will find its normative system to live with them, the way it's learned to live with alcohol." As I noted in the next sentence, "Roffman himself is not ready to endorse full-scale legalization, only decriminalization of personal possession." In fact, he maintains a private practice counseling marijuana abusers, and concedes, along the alcohol model, that 10 percent of those who use any recreational drug tend to abuse it. (This model is still debatable, however. The National Institute for Drug Abuse estimated that of the 8.2 million Americans aged 18 to 25 who tried precrack cocaine, only 3 percent used it as often as weekly, a pertinent indicator of possible abuse.)

Levinsohn ignores the conclusion I draw after summarizing the arguments for legalization: that it is "the end we should work toward, though we're not ready to embrace it yet," by "preparing for the burdens of responsibility that it would impose." I endorsed such intermediate steps as decriminalization of marijuana for personal use, tests of its legal production and sale with careful monitoring of results, and, more generally, "policies based on the specific dangers of each drug--rather than a blanket declaration of war." Most important, we should shift our money and our expectations from demonstratedly futile eradication, interdiction, and enforcement to drug treatment and education.

But much as we reformers would like to see them as panaceas, treatment and education are only stopgaps. They won't cure our collective compulsion to abuse drugs. To quote again from England's Dr, Richard Blum, drugs "are the chemical tracer that diagnoses the problems of society." Just as therapeutic drugs fill neurochemical holes, abused drugs fill deficits of motivation and aspiration. When you've got nothing else, a fix is something to look forward to. The war on drugs is much bigger than its drumbeaters realize; its battlefieids are employment, education (not just drug education), race relations, mental health, family viability, and the distribution of wealth.

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