Source: Chicago Tribune (IL) Pubdate: 23 July 1998 Section: Sec. 1, p. 23 Contact: http://www.chicago.tribune.com/ Author: Steve Chapman IN THE DRUG WAR, FANTASY BEATS FACTS It's been said that any prosecutor can convict a guilty defendant--it takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent one. But any responsible prosecutor confronted with convincing evidence that he indicted the wrong person would immediately move to dismiss the case. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey doesn't follow the same practice. He issued an indictment the other day and, after learning the charges were false, insisted that the suspect was guilty nonetheless. Nothing is going to get in the way of the drug war, least of all mere truth. McCaffrey was about to take a trip to Europe that was billed as a "fact-finding tour" but in practice seems to have been a fact-dodging tour. Among the destinations on his itinerary was the Netherlands, where the sale and possession of marijuana and hashish are permitted and police rarely make arrests for possession of hard drugs. Shortly before traveling to the Netherlands, he said Dutch drug policy was an "unmitigated disaster," claiming it has turned the country into a pit of violence and depravity. "The murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States," he said. "The overall crime rate in Holland is probably 40 percent higher than in the United States. That's drugs." This news came as a shock to the peaceable citizens of the Netherlands, who do not live in the same constant fear of crime as residents of, say, Washington, D.C. And their surprise was justified. It turns out the drug czar's claims were wildly inaccurate. Instead of being double the U.S. rate, the Dutch homicide rate is about one-fifth as high. With 16 million people, the entire country has fewer murders each year than Houston. Crime is not unknown there, but it mostly involves theft and other property crimes, as in Britain. Violent offenses, however, are exceedingly scarce by American standards. "When it comes to life-threatening robberies, we're talking about a difference of 15 to 1 between the United States and the Netherlands," says Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "You're just as likely to lose your bicycle in Amsterdam as in Chicago, but you're much less likely to lose your life." Crime is not the only comparative success story in the Netherlands. Despite its laissez-faire approach to cannabis--or perhaps because of it-- marijuana use is lower in the Netherlands than in the United States among both adults and adolescents. McCaffrey, however, saw no need to make amends for his error. He attributed his murder statistics to the international police agency Interpol and said that if the Dutch have a gripe, they should take it there. After he visited the Netherlands, the czar softened his comments only slightly, praising the government for some of its actions. Asked if he still thought the Dutch approach to drugs was an "unmitigated disaster," McCaffrey replied, "You can say it's a mitigated disaster." The problem here is not that the nation's leading official in the war on drugs provided grossly inaccurate information about an important issue, though that is bad enough. The problem is that the U.S. government is making policy based on terrible misinformation and that our top drug official shows no capacity to learn from his mistakes. When he thought the Dutch murder rate was higher than the American rate, McCaffrey had no doubt that Dutch drug policy was the reason. But now that he knows the Dutch rate is far lower, he cannot even consider the possibility that the Netherlands' permissive drug policy is not so harmful after all. He's like a guy who jumps off a building in the belief he can defy gravity and then, when he hits the ground, insists that gravity had nothing to do with it. McCaffrey's devotion to ignorance was on display even after this embarrassment. Before visiting the Netherlands, where pot may be sold and consumed openly in small "coffee shops," the drug czar spurned suggestions that he take a look at this experiment with his own two eyes. "I'm not sure there's much to be learned by watching somebody smoking pot," he said. Trouble is, he shows no sign of being able to learn in other ways, either. McCaffrey can depict the Netherlands as a disaster, but he might as well depict the Zuider Zee as part of the Alps: Anyone who cares to look can see it's not so. The Dutch are trying something different on drugs, and the results are not an endorsement of the U.S. drug war. Apparently, that is of no interest to Barry McCaffrey, who doesn't realize that wisdom is what you acquire after you know it all. - --- Checked-by: "Rich O'Grady"