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August 6, 2002
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Fighting drug use with prohibition has not made a substantial difference in the amount or crime and drug abuse in the United States, critics say. (ABCNEWS.com)
Just Say No
Government’s War on Drugs Fails

By John Stossel

July 30 — Have you ever used illegal drugs? The government says a third of Americans have at some point — and about 5 percent use them regularly.

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The number may be higher, because how many people honestly answer the question, "Have you used an illicit drug in the past month?"

What should America do about this? So far, our approach has been to go to war — a war that police departments fight every day. A war that U.S. politicians tackle in a different way than their European counterparts. And a war that is not going away.

Asa Hutchinson, President Bush's choice to run the Drug Enforcement Administration, travels the world telling Americans that we're winning the drug war. "Overall drug use in the United States has been reduced by 50 percent over the last 20 years," he says.

But it's questionable whether the fall is attributable to the government's policies, or whether it was just people getting smarter after the binges of the 1970s. In the last 10 years drug use hasn't dropped — despite federal spending on the drug war rising 50 percent. And despite all the seizures, drugs are still as available as they ever were.

Hutchinson agrees that there are problems with the government's efforts. "We have flat-lined. I believe we lost our focus to a certain extent," he says. "I don't believe that we had the same type of energy devoted to it as we have in certain times in the past."

Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver is not convinced that expending more energy — and making more drug arrests — will help America win the crusade. "We will never arrest our way out of this problem," he says. "All you have to do is go to almost any corner in any city. It will tell you that. …

"Clearly, we're losing the war on drugs in this country [and] it's insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again."

Seduced by Money

We know the terrible things drugs can do. We've seen the despair, the sunken face of the junkie. No wonder those in government say that we have to fight drugs. And polls show most Americans agree. Drug use should be illegal. Or as former "drug czar" Bill Bennett put it: "It's a matter of right and wrong."

But when "right and wrong" conflict with supply and demand, nasty things happen. The government declaring drugs illegal doesn't mean people can't get them, it just means they get them on the black market, where they pay much more for them.

"The only reason that coke is worth that much money is that it's illegal," argues Father Joseph Kane, a priest in a drug-ravaged Bronx neighborhood in New York City. "Pure cocaine is three times the cost of gold. Now if that's the case, how are you gonna stop people from selling cocaine?"

Kane has come to believe that while drug abuse is bad, drug prohibition is worse — because the black market does horrible things to his community. "There's so much money in it, it's staggering," he says.

Orange County, Calif., Superior Court Judge James Gray agrees with Kane. He spent years locking drug dealers up, but concluded it's pointless, because drug prohibition makes the drugs so absurdly valuable. "We are recruiting children in the Bronx, in the barrios, and all over the nation, because of drug money," he says.

Besides luring kids into the underworld, drug money is also corrupting law enforcement officers, he argues.

Cops are seduced by drug money. They have been for years. "With all the money, with all the cash, it's easy for [dealers] to purchase police officers, to purchase prosecutors, to purchase judges," says Oliver, the Detroit police chief.

The worst unintended consequence of the drug war is drug crime. Films like Reefer Madness told us that people take drugs and just go crazy. But, in reality people rarely go crazy or become violent because they're high.

The violence happens because dealers arm themselves and have shootouts over turf. Most of the drug-related violence comes from the fact that it's illegal, argues Kane. Violence also happens because addicts steal to pay the high prices for drugs.

An Alternative to Prohibition

There's no question that drugs often wreck lives. But the drug war wrecks lives too, creates crime and costs billions of dollars.

Is there an alternative? Much of Europe now says there is.

In Amsterdam, using marijuana is legal. Holland now has hundreds of "coffee shops" where marijuana is officially tolerated. Clients pick up small amounts of marijuana the same way they would pick up a bottle of wine at the store.

The police regulate marijuana sales — shops may sell no more than about five joints worth per person, they're not allowed to sell to minors, and no hard drugs are allowed.

What has been the result of legalizing marijuana? Is everyone getting stoned? No. In America today 38 percent of adolescents have smoked pot — in Holland, it's only 20 percent.

What Amsterdam police did was take the glamour out of drug use, explains Judge Gray. The Dutch minister of health has said, "We've succeeded in making pot boring."

The DEA has said legalizing cannabis and hash in the Netherlands was a failure — an unmitigated disaster. Not so, say people in Amsterdam. And Rotterdam Police Superintendent Jur Verbeek says selling the drug in coffee shops may deter young, curious people who will try marijuana one way or another, from further experimentation with harder drugs.

"When there are no coffee shops, they will go to the illegal houses, where the dealer says, 'OK, you want to have marijuana. Good. But we have cocaine as well. And we have heroin for you,'" Verbeek argues.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Still, in America, there's little interest in legalizing any drug. President Bush says "drug use threatens everything." And officials talk about fighting a stronger war. Some say it shouldn't be even talked about.

In 1991, Joycelyn Elders, who would become President Clinton's surgeon general, dared to suggest legalization might reduce crime. Critics almost immediately called for her resignation. "How can you ever fix anything if you can't even talk about it?" Elders says.

What the Dutch are doing makes sense to Gray. "They're addressing it as managers," he says. "We address it as moralizers. We address it as a character issue, and if you fail that test, we put you in prison."

Experiments with being more permissive of drugs have spread beyond the Netherlands. Today, police in most of Europe ignore marijuana use. Spain, Italy and Luxembourg have decriminalized most drug use.

That's not to say that all the experiments succeed everywhere. Switzerland once tried what became known as Needle Park, a place where anyone could use any drug. It attracted crime because it became a magnet for junkies from all over Europe.

Critics say the Netherlands has become an island of drug use. But while illegal selling still happens, the use of drugs in the Netherlands and all Europe is still far lower than in the United States, and European countries are proposing even more liberalization.

American politicians have shown little interest in that.

"We in America should have a different approach," explains Hutchinson. "You do not win in these efforts by giving in."

Hopeless Fight?

Still, how many wars can America fight? Now that we're at war against terrorism, can we also afford to fight a drug war against millions of our own people? Is it wise to fight on two fronts?

The last time America engaged in a war of this length was Vietnam, and then, too, government put a positive spin on success of the war.

But today more people have doubts. Judge Gray questions the government's ability to protect us from ourselves. "It makes as much sense to me to put actor Robert Downey Jr. in jail for his drug abuse as it would have Betty Ford in jail for her alcohol abuse. It's really no different."

Gray advocates holding people accountable for what they do — not for what they put into their bodies.

Why not sell drugs like we do alcohol, he says, though maybe with more restrictions. "Let's make it available to adults. Brown packaging, no glamour, take the illegal money out of it and then furnish it, holding people accountable for what they do," he suggests. "These drugs are too dangerous not to control."

Legal drugs — that's a frightening thought. Maybe more people would try them.

Gray says even if they did, that would do less harm than the war we've been fighting for the past 30 years.

"What we're doing now has failed. In fact it's hopeless," he argues. "This is a failed system that we simply must change."

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