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Drug War Is Worse Than the Drugs : Criminalization May Threaten Our Morality, Safety

September 08, 1986|STEPHEN J. MORSE | Stephen J. Morse is the Orrin B. Evans professor of law, psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at USC.

We must be honest about the harmful consequences of fighting drugs through criminal law and enforcement. I recently argued on this page (Aug. 14) that for reasons beyond its control law enforcement cannot win the war on drugs. Now I suggest that the effects of criminalization may threaten the morality and safety of American society more than drug use itself.

The economics of the drug trade are the root of the problem. The production of most dangerous drugs is relatively easy and inexpensive, but criminalization makes them enormously costly to users and monstrously profitable to traffickers.

For example, one study indicates that daily heroin users each consume more than $17,000 worth of drugs per year. Without the crime tariff the cost would probably not differ much from a pack-a-day cigarette habit.

The criminalization markup for cocaine is even greater. Estimates of the yearly value of the illicit drug trade range as high as $110 billion, much of which is profit to the criminals in the chain of production and supply.

Consider the effects of the criminalization markup on users. Although experts dispute the exact numbers of robberies, burglaries and other crimes that drug users commit to pay for drugs, all agree that users, especially heavy users, commit great numbers of crimes. Wealthier users who need not commit crimes also spend large sums in the unproductive drug trade rather than in the productive economy. Many users must abandon careers and turn to crime to pay for drugs. And the criminal prohibition promotes a drug-outlaw subculture that encourages both use and more crime.

Criminalization precludes the control of the purity of drugs and the safety of their administration, resulting in preventable disease or even death to users.

Criminalization also increases the power of drug traffickers and organized crime. The drug trade provides gargantuan sums of money that are used for terrifying purposes. Profits buy technology, manpower and silence to defeat law enforcement.

Worse yet, traffickers corrupt law-enforcement and government officials at home and abroad. The failure to win the war on drugs and the corruption that it breeds cause disrespect for and loss of confidence in both law enforcement and government.

The illicit gains of drug trafficking are employed to infiltrate legitimate businesses, which are then subject to the use of intimidation and corruption. The drug trade may well create a corrupt state and economy within our nation.

Criminalizing drugs is a source of sickening violence. The rewards produced by the illegality of the enterprise are so great that kidnaping, torture and murder are routine ways in which traffickers do business.

Moreover, drug trafficking, although dangerous, is so easy, exciting and above all lucrative that its allure undercuts the work ethic and mocks the life style of those who toil legitimately. Our nation's traditional values and morale both suffer.

Criminalization also produces dangerous changes in the law and law-enforcement practices. Constant pressure is exerted to limit constitutional protections of privacy and security by expanding the power of the government to use intrusive methods such as electronic surveillance.

Illegal means are often used mistakenly and sometimes purposely to fight the drug war. The recent hysteria about drugs has even produced suggestions to change the law to permit using the armed forces for domestic law enforcement at our borders. Furthermore, the need to crack the power of the drug traffickers has led to unprecedented and intrusive civil laws such as those requiring banks to report large transactions to the government.

Criminalizing drugs creates international problems. The substantial dollars spent for drugs abroad are not repatriated, thus worsening the balance of payments. The drug-trafficking underworld uses its profits to bankroll arms smuggling, insurgency, espionage and terrorist activities that strike at our security.

The drug traffic also interferes with foreign relations. As recent experience with Mexico demonstrates, attempts to impose our drug policies and enforcement practices on other nations creates tension and ill will. Because traffickers corrupt foreign officials, these officials are disreputable and unreliable allies.

Finally, the criminal-justice system's war on drugs directly costs staggering billions. The federal drug-abuse outlay alone will be close to $2 billion in 1986. State and local costs are higher. Given the myriad needs for each tax dollar--including other, more important, law enforcement needs--we can no longer afford to subsidize the ineffective criminalization strategy.

If criminal law and enforcement reduced drug use to tolerable levels, we might find the inevitable bad consequences acceptable. But--despite some temporary, limited successes--law enforcement cannot win the drug war, and the ill effects of criminalization are both intolerable and increasing.

How much longer will we put up with the crime, corruption and misery that criminalization creates? We must debate dispassionately, and perhaps even take a chance with, a new strategy.

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