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Why Rush to Surrender on Drugs?




 

LEAD: Federal District Judge Robert Sweet adds his voice to those who call for legalization of drugs, along with George Shultz, the former Secretary of State; William F. Buckley, the columnist; Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, and Milton Friedman, the economist. But the judge offers no persuasive new insights.

Federal District Judge Robert Sweet adds his voice to those who call for legalization of drugs, along with George Shultz, the former Secretary of State; William F. Buckley, the columnist; Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, and Milton Friedman, the economist. But the judge offers no persuasive new insights. Instead he demonstrates how frustration with the drug problem clouds common sense.

Judge Sweet is exasperated by "seeing our justice system overwhelmed by a social phenomena." Legalizing drugs, he asserts, would immediately relieve the burden on law enforcement and free billions of dollars for drug prevention and treatment. That's a superficially seductive argument that ignores fact.

Justice is overwhelmed mainly because, despite all the declarations of a War On Drugs, government hasn't begun to provide the necessary resources. In that sense, to call for legalized drugs now is to surrender without a serious fight.

But even if society had begun to fight, the argument for legalization remains deeply flawed. Its supporters acknowledge the need for regulation; they typically envision addicts lining up for drugs during business hours at a public dispensary. Such a system may be plausible for heroin. Addicts maintained on regular daily doses can lead normal lives. Thousands already do so on methadone. But the current besetting curse is crack, and crack is different. Addicts binge on it, rather than nodding off regularly. To satisfy crack addicts, a dispensary would have to be open at all hours, and serve all customers, no questions asked. To regulate supply would defeat the goal of reducing the law enforcement burden. Criminal gangs would rush to serve all who prefer to avoid the rules.

The alternative to regulation is free access to crack. But that would likely produce a surge of new addiction - and a health catastrophe.

Crack use causes paranoia, often violent, that continues after the drug wears off. Women reluctant to inject heroin are quick to smoke crack. As a result, crack has generated a horrendous wave of child abuse. The exchange of sex for crack by binging addicts spreads syphilis and AIDS.

All these ugly trends would grow dramatically if crack were more freely available. Promoters of legalization say maybe not. But there is little evidence to support so stupendous a contradiction of common sense.

In the end, Judge Sweet thinks legalization, and the shifting of money to drug treatment and attacks on broader social problems, could produce a healthier America. Yet drug treatment for crack remains in the primitive stages, and cures for broader social ills are far from clear. The judge bases his optimism on the current public interest in diet. "If our society can learn to stop using butter," he says, "it should be able to cut down on cocaine."

That is an airy, remote response to the victims of crack: the underweight, addicted infant struggling for life in intensive care . . . the battered child awaiting a foster home . . . the deranged homeless man picking fights in a city shelter . . . the AIDS patient slowly dying in a crowded hospital ward.

Those who call for legal crack can do so only by averting their eyes from these realities, and from the first requirement of a War On Drugs: to fight.



 


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Information in this article was accurate in December 14, 1989. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.