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Miscellaneous Statements on Drug Policy


by Whitman Knapp

This is from the Sunday, May 9, New York Times OP-ED page.

Whitman Knapp is a Senior United States District Judge for the

Southern District of New York.


The nation was fortunate in President Clinton's selection of Lee Brown as Director of the Office of National Drug Control.

Having been police commissioner in Atlanta, Houston and New York, Mr. Brown has been in key positions to observe that a half-century of the Federal war against drugs has had a simple result: Each year, the Government has spent more on enforcing drug laws than it did the year before. Each year, more people have gone to jail for drug offenses.

Yet each year there have been more drugs on the streets.

Surely, Mr. Brown can have no interest in simply spending more money and filling more prisons. Indeed, he might well conclude that his mission is to find out how to eliminate his new job.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist, has a simple explanation of the upward spiral with which Mr. Brown must contend. Law enforcement temporarily reduces the drug supply and thus causes prices to rise. Higher prices draw new sources of supply and even new drugs into the market, resulting in more drugs on the street. The increased availability of drugs creates more addicts. The Government reacts with more vigorous enforcement, and the cycle starts anew.

Mr. Friedman and those who share his views propose a straightforward way out of this discouraging spiral: Decriminalize drugs, thus eliminating the pressure on supply that creates an ever-bigger market.

This, they contend, will reduce demand and reverse the cycle, much as a similar approach has cut into alcohol addiction.

I do not claim competence to evaluate this theory. But after 20 years on the bench, I have concluded that Federal drug laws are a disaster. It is time to get the Government out of drug enforcement. As long as we indulged the fantasy that the problem could be solved by making America drug free, it was appropriate that the Government assume the burden. But that ambition has been shown to be absurd.

Attorney General Janet Reno's statement on Friday that she hopes to refocus the drug war on treatment show's admirable determination that the drug problem is primarily a local issue, more properly the concern and responsibility of state and city governments.

If the possession or distribution of drugs were no longer a Federal crime, other levels of government would face the choice of enforcement or trying out Milton Friedman's theory and decriminalizing. If they chose the second route, they would have to decide whether to license drug retailers, distribute drugs through state agencies or perhaps allow drugs only to be purchased with a physician's prescription.

The variety, complexity and importance of these questions make it exceedingly clear that the Federal Government has no business being involved in any of them. What might be a hopeful solution in New York could be a disaster in Idaho, and only state legislatures and city governments, not Congress, can pass laws tailored to local needs.

What did the nation do when it decided to rid itself of the catastrophes spawned by Prohibition? It adopted the 21st Amendment, which excluded the Government from any role in regulation of alcoholic beverages and strengthened the powers of the states to deal with such matters.

That is precisely what the Congress should do with respect to drugs. It should repeal all Federal laws that prohibit or regulate their distribution or use and devise methods for helping the states to exercise their respective powers in those areas.

But having created the problem by decades of ill-considered legislation, congress can't just throw it back to the states without helping finance the efforts. That raises a host of complex problems, including apportionment of Federal monies among the states, restrictions on how the monies may be used, the ratio of Federal dollars for enforcement to those spent on treatment and the role of nongovernmental organizations that treat addicts.

Such problems will not lend themselves to easy resolution. After all, Prohibition was allowed to wreak havoc for a mere 14 years, while the drug warriors have been at it for many decades. Under Lee Brown's leadership, we may hope for a return to sanity.


These three "Letters to the Editor" appeared in the May 24 NYT.

comments follow each one.


To the Editor:

"Dethrone the Drug Czar" (Op-Ed May 9), in which Whitman Knapp calls for decriminalizing drugs, proved poignant for me. I read it soon after coming off an emergency room shift where I saw two cocaine-induced abortions and got to resuscitate a 15-year-old who suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage due to cocaine use. "Resuscitate" may be too strong a word. What I actually did was hook up a brain-dead boy to life support, drill a hole in his head and try to comfort his hysterical mom while I negotiated him into our last remaining intensive care unit bed.

Judge Knapp doesn't seem to understand that the consumption of illegal drugs, not the commerce surrounding them, causes most of the drug-related misery and death. This tragedy is visited not only upon the drug users, but also upon those who get in the way of their fists, knives, guns and cars. Justice Department studies have shown that a majority of violent crimes are committed by people already intoxicated -- not by those seeking drugs.

Those who learn their history from historians, rather than from old re-runs of the "Untouchables"," know that Prohibition resulted in a major reduction in child abuse, domestic violence, murders, disease and absenteeism. The subsequent decriminalization of alcohol did not "cut into alcohol addiction" -- it facilitated and encouraged it.

For many people and for society as a whole, alcohol and illicit drugs are agents of disease. Decriminalizing illegal drugs will remove yet another barrier to their consumption and end up increasing their use. This may put the drug czar out of business, but it's sure to keep me spending more of your health care dollars for years to come.

Daniel Brookoff, M.D.

Assistant Professor of Medicine

University of Tennessee

Memphis, May 10, 1993



To the Editor:

We can no longer ignore calls like Judge Whitman Knapp's in "Dethrone the Drug Czar" to decriminalize drugs. When most of our jails are filled with drug-related convicted criminals; when the criminal justice system is crippled by drug-related cases; when drugs cost us billions of dollars in police, judges, prosecutors and lawyers; when our streets, schools, subways, parks, homes and we are not safe from drug-related shootings, burglaries and muggings, our politicians can at least debate decriminalization honestly.

What are we afraid of? That it would become too easy to obtain drugs? How difficult is it now? Are we afraid that more youngsters will use drugs? Do we really believe that the fear of criminal punishment deters drug use? If so, where is the proof of such deterrence? These questions should be debated.

If drugs were decriminalized and made available without the fear of long-term jail terms for sellers and user,s it stands to reason that prices would be reduced drastically. The drug user who now steals, mugs and burglarizes to support his habit may not commit such crimes if he could obtain the drugs at a lower price. The billions of dollars now spent to enforce drug laws could be spent to educate youngsters against the use of drugs and to treat drug users. Decriminalizing drugs does not mean encouragement of their use.

On the positive side, decriminalizing drugs could reduce crime, unclog our judicial system and free billions of dollars for other purposes, including drug treatment facilities. What is the negative side of decriminalizing drugs? Can we afford more of the same?

Demetrios Coritsidis

Long Island City, Queens, May 12, 1993

_The writer is a lawyer._


Third letter:



To the Editor:

Over the last few years we have lost our focus on illegal drugs as a national security threat. Editorials increasingly demand a United States counternarcotics policy that attempts to solve the drug problem solely through domestic actions. Increased resources for drug prevention and treatment can pay big dividends, and should be pursued.

But we also need a focused foreign policy. The news that Gilberto Rodriguez-Orjuela, the Cali cartel drug kingpin, ordered the killing in New York City of Manuel de Dios Unanue to silence his writings about the cartel (front page, May 11) should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans that an isolationist counternarcotics strategy would be a tragic mistake.

Although the Medellin cartel has been badly damaged, the Colombian cocaine cartel headquartered in Cali is more powerful than ever. Through corruption, intimidation and murder, it exerts a powerful influence over Colombian Government institutions. Its influence has spread.

In Bolivia, trafficking networks of native Colombians have replaced native Bolivians, while in Guatemala Cali traffickers have bought up ranches to use as staging locations for aerial smuggling. Wherever they go, the curruption of democratic institutions follows. And now the first murder by the Cali cartel of an American journalist on American soil has been charged.

So long as the Cali cartel is allowed to flourish unchecked, it will export death and violence to America. It has the most effective clandestine distribution system in America for contraband and weapons. When American weans itself away from widespread cocaine addiction, the cartel will have shifted to heroin. The cartel is financing a massive opium cultivation program in Colombia that has in less than two years catapulted Columbia to the world's No. 3 heroin producer.

A global drug cartel like Cali can only be weakened and incapacitated by global-law enforcement action. If we leave these global mafias for our children to deal with, it may be too late.

Robert C. Bonner

Drug Enforcement Administrator

Washington, May 14, 1993


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