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The Drug Legalization Debate

Drug Peace


 San Jose Mercury News, Wednesday, May 17, 1995

It was clear that the police chiefs were fed up with the drug war. One of them raised a haunting specter of Vietnam - the last United States helicopter taking off in panic from the American Embassy roof in Saigon at the end of the war. "How," the chief asked, "can we get out of the drug war without evoking such a vivid symbol of surrender and defeat?"

He was speaking the thoughts of many of the 50 law enforcement leaders participating in a two-day conference on drug policy held last week at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Hours later, the group concluded that studying a medical and public health approach to drug control does not mean putting rock cocaine on store shelves next to soda pop. An evaluation of the drug war and a study of alternative methods of drug control is the way to an honorable peace.

The suggestion sends a powerful message to the politicians trying to outdo each other in being tough on drugs. Ninety percent of the chiefs do not support the federal war against drugs. And the few who do support the war, nevertheless, were part of a unanimous vote saying that treatment, education and prevention are more useful than arrests and prison sentences.

The law enforcement leaders were also unanimous in calling for a blue ribbon commission to evaluate the drug war and to study alternative methods of controlling drugs. The message to the politicians is that your political opponent cannot accuse you of being soft on drugs if you are following the recommendations of the majority of America's cops.

Ethan Nadelmann, formerly a Princeton professor, opened the conference with an overview of the drug war's failure to reduce drug use and a challenge to the participants to put aside their moral views on drug use and to consider ways to minimize the hum being done to drug users and society.

Nadelmann was followed by professor Jerome Skolnick of UC-Berkeley who described studies showing that successful prosecutions of drug rings led to increased homicides and that successful seizures of drugs by the government sometimes led drug users to experiment with even more dangerous drugs.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz reminded the group that powerful economic forces are at work in the illegal drug market and that it is essential to find a way to reduce the demand that leads to such exorbitant profits for drug dealers.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke was the show stopper. He described how his constituents, most of whom are African-Americans, re-elected him after he had called for the "medicalization" of anti-drug efforts treating users as people needing help instead of merely jailing them as criminals. He asked neighborhood groups if they thought the drug war had been won, if they thought we were now winning, or If they thought it would be won 10 years from now using present methods. He won reelection.

Schmoke also described a school visit during which children told him that most of the youngsters dropping out of school did so not because they were hooked on drugs - they were hooked on easy drug money. Schmoke, because of his closeness to African-American neighborhoods, was able to counter Congressman Charles Rangel's charges that it is genocide to consider medicalization approaches to drug control. Schmoke said the drug war itself has a negative effect on African-Americans.

The following day, two federal judges, Vaughn Walker and Robert Sweet, spoke of the inappropriateness of relying upon criminal law enforcement to control the personal behavior of drug use and the cruelty of imposing 10-year mandatory sentences on first-time drug offenders who had committed no other crime.

San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan told how his program of sterile needle exchange had lessened the danger of AIDS not only for intravenous drug users but also for the public and police officers. Professor Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University provided a somber description of how the illegal drug market had caused the juvenile homicide rate to explode. Easy availability of guns and dope money resulted in the juvenile murder rate by firearms more than doubling nationally since 1985. Blumstein also reported that drug enforcement and punishment fell disproportionately on non-whites.

I pointed out that truth is another casualty in the drug war. During my 18 years as a police chief and more than 35 years in law enforcement, we often celebrated "victories," yet almost everyone in law enforcement believes the drug problem is worse now. Furthermore, it does not make sense to have peace officers in a war.

Gen. Colin Powell once said a soldier's duty is to kill the enemy. The first duty of the police is to protect human lives, including the lives of people unfortunate enough to be addicted to drugs. In addition, every week somewhere across the country there is another police scandal related to the drug war - corruption. brutality and even armed robberies by cops in uniform, as well as consistent violations of civil rights by officers who feel that anything goes in a war.

It is not surprising that when law enforcement leaders spend two days analyzing the drug problem, they conclude that the drug war is futile. If the president and Congress take the time to reflect on drugs the way the top cops did, they too, would support a study of how to find peace, and an honorable end to the war on drugs.


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