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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

The Drug War Can't Abide Honest Stats

A simplistic and dishonest approach is at the heart of the new $2-billion anti-drug advertising campaign.

July 21, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: rscheer@robertscheer.com

Oops, drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey made a big factual error last week, claiming the murder rate in Holland is twice as high as that of the U.S. because of permissive Dutch drug policies. In fact, the U.S murder rate as a percentage of the population is 4.5 times higher than in Holland.

Hey, no problem, what good is being drug czar if you have to worry about facts? If there's one thing we know after 20 years and billions of dollars fighting the drug war, it's that the war will never be won with honest statistics.

McCaffrey is a retired general unencumbered by prior familiarity with the medical aspects of drug addiction or methods of prevention and treatment. No matter; in the doctrine of the U.S. drug war, the patient is the enemy. In appointing this tough general to direct the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, President Clinton proved that he was as asinine on drug policy as those who had never held a joint in their hands. Clinton scored big politically, but the result is a continuation of a war on our own citizens with disastrous consequences.

The Dutch have rejected the war metaphor. While drugs remain officially illegal, they have differentiated between marijuana--which can legally be sold in small quantities in set locations to adults--and hard drugs. Hard drug usage is viewed primarily as a medical problem with emphasis on treating rather than incarcerating the user. The focus is on "harm reduction"--education, treatment, needle exchange and methadone substitution.

On his brief stopover in Holland last week, McCaffrey pointedly refused to visit one of the Amsterdam "coffee shops" that legally sell small quantities of pot, saying, "I am not sure there is much to be learned from watching somebody smoking pot." How obtuse! Even the temperance fanatics of old thought they could learn something of the evil goings-on in saloons by occasionally inspecting one.

McCaffrey might have learned that smoking pot tends to lead to far less aggressive behavior than drinking alcohol; that the mood in those coffee shops is downright torpid. In fact, adolescent marijuana use is twice as high in the U.S. as Holland. Alcohol is the main abuse problem in both countries.

I write this with a Bloody Mary near at hand and am not in favor of banning alcohol, but the evidence is overwhelming that it's a far more damaging drug than marijuana. In the U.S., there are more than 100,000 alcohol-related deaths a year; there is still not one officially recorded death attributed solely to marijuana use.

Marijuana use may pose some social problems, although they're not as easily documented as those presented by a number of legally prescribed drugs. Lumping marijuana with illegal hard drugs is a continuing absurdity that leads young people to distrust all anti-drug warnings. Yet this simplistic and dishonest approach to the drug problem is at the heart of the new $2-billion anti-drug advertising campaign McCaffrey announced last week.

Why not use that money to follow the Dutch example of honest education about the drug problem and treatment of those who are addicted? Treating drug addiction as a medical rather than a criminal problem works, but serious drug treatment is only available to 10% of those in prison who need it. Yet we continue to waste billions on failed war-fighting scenarios.

Drugs are more available than ever. Opium production has doubled in the past decade. The only drug war "victory" has been to increase the profitability of the illegal drug trade that now, according to United Nations statistics, produces $400 billion in revenues, an astounding 10% of all world trade.

What madness to continue the current strategy at ever greater human and financial cost. In 1980, we spent $4 billion fighting the drug war, and the drug war hawks told us that was not enough. Now we spend eight times more, and they tell us the end is not in sight.

In 1980, 50,000 Americans were in prison on drug-related charges. The figure is now 400,000, many for personal use, making this one of the largest human rights violations in the world. Yes, because the very idea of jailing people on the basis of personal behavior for a victimless crime represents a basic violation of freedom.

This is a war fought in a contradictory and racist manner aimed primarily at the urban ghetto. Only 13% of drug users are black, but they make up far more than a majority of those imprisoned on drug charges. These people are in prison as sacrifices to the gods of the drug war who will not let go of their holy crusade no matter how many lives are broken.

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