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Dispatch From the Drug War

September 25, 1996|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, it 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, right?

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