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End the War

New York Times

November 3, 1995


The Million Man March on Washington, a largely middle-class gathering, left tormenting questions about the black underclass. What can be done to break the cycle of despair in our inner cities? What, especially, can be done for their lost young men?

If we are prepared to look past shibboleths, one answer should come to mind. That is to end the so-called war on drugs.

Drugs are terrible. But it is not drugs that have done the real damage to our society. It is the misbegotten effort to use the criminal law against them.

We tried Prohibition to end alcohol abuse. It brought so much crime that we quickly gave up the Noble Experiment.

Prohibition of drugs began in 1915. The experiment has been going for 80 years now. and by every rational test it is a ghastly failure.

The huge amounts of money spent in recent years on the drug war have not reduced addiction. Per capita use of cocaine has in fact increased.

And the effort to stop drug use by harsher and harsher criminal penalties has had devastating side effects. It has made importation and distribution of the forbidden products immensely profitable. That in turn has lured large numbers of young men, even children, into the trade.

"We're giving these kids a criminal identity," Joseph D. McNamara, former police chief in Calif., said, "when we should be trying to find every possible way to keep them in school and get them into employment!"

Mr. McNamara is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. Last May, Hoover put on a conference about drug policy. The participants Included George Shultz, the former Secretary of State, Milton Friedman, the economist - both also at the Hoover Institution - and dozens of police officials. The participants ended by favoring. overwhelmingly, medical and educational alternatives to the war on drugs. "Any objective group that studies the war on drugs has to recognize that it's a disaster." Mr. McNamara told The Palo Alto (Calif.) Weekly. "It is not stopping the spread of drug abuse, It's causing a good deal more crime and violence than we'd otherwise have, and it's having severe negative effects on race relations in America."

Another terrible cost of the drug war is the incarceration of enormous numbers of people. This country now has more than one million prisoners, many of them sentenced to long terms, for nonviolent drug crimes. It costs upward of $20,000 a year for each one - and it will cost hundreds of billions to build new prisons.

The racial impact of the drug war is particularly devastating.. One third of this country's black men between 20 and 29 are now in prison or under supervision of the criminal justice system, most of them for drug crimes.

Then there is the murderous quality of life in urban ghettos. Guns accompany the drug trade, and small children are incidental victims of the street battles that result. By one estimate, we have 10,000 drug-related homicides a year.

If we began to decriminalize our drug laws. there might be an increase, perhaps temporary, in casual use. But against that possibility one has to weigh the great gains for society in taking the profit out of the trade.

That is one point. made in a compelling piece on drugs in the October issue of The Washington Monthly. by Joshua Wolf Shenk. It argues that we must try to limit drug use - but not use methods that do more harm than good.

Cigarettes have been found to addict young users more than any other drug, Mr. Shenk points out; and 400,000 Americans die prematurely each year because of tobacco use. But we fight that problem not by criminal prohibition but by rules and, education, which have substantially reduced smoking.

Politically, it is very hard to talk sense about drugs. President Clinton has just signed legislation rejecting a recommendation of the Federal Sentencing Commission to end the grotesque disparity of sentences for crack and regular cocaine: up to 100 times more for the former.

But some day we may have political leaders brave enough to do what most of the police authorities and judges who are on the front line-have concluded is essential - stop the self destruction of the war on drugs.

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