Pubdate: Wed, 5 Aug 1998
Source: Wall Street Journal
Author: Sally Satel

Bookshelf: Addicted To Abolition

At the turn of the last century, unrestricted access to morphine, heroin and
cocaine led to a great wave of addiction in the U.S. Witnessing this
devastation of people's lives, the nation responded with antidrug laws.
Somehow the simple lesson here--that drugs are dangerous--has been forgotten
by many of our nation's elites. Mike Gray's "Drug Crazy" (Random House, 251
pages, $23.95) is the product of such selective memory.

Mr. Gray, a film producer, makes the claim that the harms produced by drug
prohibition are worse than the hazards of the drugs themselves. Yet his book
is so lopsided that it fails to persuade. This is not to say that the "drug
war" is being waged in the best way. Indeed, many drugs today are
accessible, cheap and potent, not a good advertisement for current
interdiction efforts. But Mr. Gray's angry, anecdote-driven account is
hardly the best place to look for reform.

Most of the book catalogs drug-war excesses: abuses of police power,
corruption, gang violence, paranoid officials. The author uses them as
reason to abolish our drug laws. "The black market must be underbid," Mr.
Gray writes. "If that means drugs have to be given away to serious addicts,
so be it. Anyone who is determined to use heroin regardless of consequences
must be able to get the stuff from a legitimate source at a price that
doesn't require stealing car radios."

This is typical of the harm-reduction philosophy Mr. Gray advocates: Since
addicts will be addicts, let's make it easier on them and our car radios. In
other words, give them the means of their own destruction and leave the
taxpayer to pick up the pieces.

Making drug control work better by reducing demand--perhaps our best
hope--isn't even an option for Mr. Gray. Apart from denigrating the D.A.R.E.
program (a nationwide school-based education program) and calling for fewer
restrictions on methadone, he virtually ignores prevention and treatment. He
sees addicts as victims of everything but the drugs they abuse. For example,
he blames the recent increase in heroin overdoses on the prohibitionists'
scare tactics: "Cool Gen X-ers knew from experience that government claims
about marijuana were exaggerated, so they assumed the grown-ups were lying
about heroin as well." More likely the deaths were due to batches of
extremely high-purity drug.

Mr. Gray is adamant that prohibition must go, and he packs into each chapter
stories of corruption and brutality that would make even the toughest drug
hawk cringe. But in his zeal to legalize drugs, he slights the facts. He
claims that the nation's current homicide rate is a function of prohibition,
yet in a graph he presents the years 1951-55 have the century's lowest rate,
even though drug laws then were harsher than now. Nor is mention made of
property crime and burglary (the hallmarks of drug use in the '60s and
'70s), which have been on a steady decline over the past two decades under
the very laws Mr. Gray condemns.
Mr. Gray blames society's negative attitudes about addicts, whom he calls
"unfortunate citizens," on the federal Harrison Anti-Narcotics Act of 1914.
Yet the Harrison Act was simply the culmination of two decades of efforts to
pass antidrug legislation. Indeed, the 1914 law did not demonize addicts;
they had turned popular sentiment against themselves. As early as 1892, Sir
William Osler's celebrated medical textbook called morphine addicts
"inveterate liars . . . not confined to matters relating to the vice."

The final chapter, "Prescription for Sanity," is more rhetoric than
practical advice. It features a post-prohibition agenda that is vague except
for one sure thing: In the world according to Mike Gray, we would have a new
dependent class of citizen--the government-supported addict. Strikingly, Mr.
Gray's prescription contains no discussion of how to reduce the consumption
of drugs. His heroes are Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, whose public-health
commissioner is seriously considering heroin maintenance (that is, the
medically supervised distribution of pharmaceutical-grade heroin); the
millionaire backers of the California and Arizona medical marijuana
initiatives; and of course philanthropist George Soros, who is underwriting
much of the nation's harm-reduction movement.

Are some changes needed? Definitely. We could start by easing restrictions
on physicians who prescribe pain-killers; researching the medical properties
of marijuana; and rethinking aspects of the crack cocaine/powder cocaine
sentencing disparity. Some interesting suggestions (and some insane ones)
can be found on the Web sites of the advocacy groups that are listed in the
book's appendix.

In this era of hysteria over tobacco, the new evil weed, it is astonishing
to see how many intelligent people have gone soft on drugs. They are right
to be frustrated with aspects of our drug problem and to seek enlightened
direction, but Mr. Gray's skewed vision is just a bad trip.

Dr. Satel is a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale University School of

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