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The Drug Legalization Debate

From: Los Angeles Times, Main Section, Page 3
September 25, 1996

Dispatch From the Drug War

by Peter H. King

Here's how it works in the never-ending War on Drugs: In August a federal
agency reports that 32 of 4,500 teenagers surveyed respond that they took
heroin in 1995. The year before, the same survey had found 14 teenagers
who copped to heroin usage. Other categories show upticks as well, but the
increase in teen heroin usage is what grabs the headlines.
Now put aside, as the surveyors must, whether the teenagers were telling
the truth. Also disregard the warning from polling experts that the size
of the sample is statistically insignificant, that-as one told the Wall
Street Journal-"we should be careful not to overinterpret the findings or
jump to policy conclusions."
This is the War on Drugs, and patriotic Americans must follow the example
of their political leaders. They must suspend reality. Let the numbers
speak for themselves: Heroin use-no, the shorthand is better, drug use-has
"doubled" among American teenagers. This cannot be tolerated. This
demands action. In this case, action translates into a new Bob Dole
television commercial suggesting President Clinton is " soft on drugs."
Clinton counters by hurling more tough words and weapons into the war.
On Tuesday, to provide just the latest example, the White House announced
it would give $112 million in materiel to Colombia, Peru and other Latin
American countries. For Mexico alone, the 18 additional teen heroin users
will translate into 53 UH- 1H helicopters. All this equipment, states the
White House, "will assist our allies in stopping the flow of drugs at the
source, before they reach our shores."
Can anyone out there spell "hallucinate?"
We break now from this Drug War dispatch for a few words from the home
front. The speaker is James P. Gray, a conservative Superior Court judge
in conservative Orange County. For the past four years, Gray has been
engaged in a grass-roots effort to spark a national discussion over a
provocative alternative to the War on Drugs. Yes, brace yourself, Gray is
talking "decriminalization."
From the bench, he has seen the war's downside, the steady steam of
nickel-and-dime users and dealers who-to satisfy take-the-hill political
rhetoric-are treated as the worst of criminals rather than as sick people.
He has weighed the cost of the trials and incarceration as compared to
treatment. He has seen how hardened criminals must be released to make
cell space for the prisoners of the War on Drugs. He has seen the "utter
hopelessness of what we are doing: spending hundreds of millions of dollars
in an effort that accomplishes virtually nothing."
Gray speaks frequently on the issue,' and he always begins by testing the
audience: "The first question out of my mouth is, 'Who here feels our
country is in better shape today in regard to drug use and abuse and all
the crime and misery that goes with it than it was five years ago?' And
nobody raises a hand. Ever.
"And so my follow-up to that is this: 'OK. We all realize we are not in
better shape. We also have no legitimate expectation of being in better
shape next year than today-unless we change our approach.' "And that's when
people start to listen."
Simply getting people to listen is no small accomplishment for advocates of
decriminalization, so thoroughly has the politicians wartime propaganda
been pounded home. Gray must remind his audiences he is not for drugs.
Indeed, he, calls them "garbage." What he is for is a rethinking of the War
on Drugs mentality "We are willing to spend all this money to put people in
prison, but not on things that would do some good, namely education, drug
treatment and holding people accountable for their actions. The War on

Drugs increases street crime on the one, hand, and it takes away sources
for its prosecution on the other. Every dollar we spend on undercover drug
operations is a dollar we take away from going after murder, rape,
burglary, driving-under-the-influence and everything else."
There also is collateral damage to consider. The war mode jacks up the
street value of narcotics, creating a drug economy that, absent of
alternatives, many people simply find too lucrative to resist. It has
created a whole stable of Capones, a line of profiteers that runs from
South Los Angeles to the Caribbean cocaine countries, while corrupting
narcotics officers from Los Angeles County to New York City. Worse, has
bloodied the streets of American cities-the trenches of the drug war.
It also has created a political environment where candidates dare not
mention decriminalization, inhalation or anything that might be taken as
backing away from the War on Drugs. In such a climate, the safest course
is to toss money down the rat hole and hide behind catchy slogans.
"Just Don't Do It," chants Candidate Dole. Now that ought to fix things,

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