Pubdate: Mon, 08 Mar 1999
Source: Christian Science Monitor (US)
Copyright: 1999 The Christian Science Publishing Society.
Author: Mike Tidwell


the demand guaranteesdrug sales will continue

No credible evidence exists showing that stringent enforcement of US
narcotics laws actually reduces drug use in this country. Indeed, the
opposite  seems true: Law-enforcement efforts actually promote illicit
drug use.

That's certainly my observation after 10 years working with homeless
drug  addicts in Washington, D.C. The endless police raids on crack
houses, shooting  galleries, and various open-air markets simply help
push drugs block-by-block  through the city, guaranteeing that every
D.C. teenager will eventually have a  full-blown market on his street

The problem is simple: Attacking supply without addressing demand
guarantees that drug markets and drug sales will not cease. They
simply move to another  spot momentarily untargeted by police raids.
Then they move again.

This phenomenon exacerbates the epidemic, casting a wider net than
would otherwise be cast, reeling into drugs youths who would otherwise
stand a much  better chance of staying drug-free.

It's important to be very clear on this point: Our law-enforcement
efforts actually help peddle drugs. Society has become a pusher. It's
hard to conclude  otherwise.

Now comes news that we'll soon get more of the same. The Clinton
administration's annual antinarcotics budget, unveiled earlier this
month, calls for roughly $12 billion in spending for law enforcement,
interdiction and other efforts to attack narcotics supply. That's a
30-percent increase since  1996 and nearly a doubling of such funding
over the past decade. This means  more money for more cops and other
resources to help facilitate the spread of  crack, heroin, and
marijuana through the streets of America's cities.

Tragically, as in past years, funding to reduce drug demand
constitutes barely a third of the proposed federal narcotics budget.
This, while local spending for treatment in many US cities continues
to drop. Washington's treatment system is in shambles. Between 1993
and 1998, the city's treatment budget fell from $31.3 million to $19.7
million - a 37-percent drop. Drug offenders - sentenced to treatment
by judges - languish in prison for months for lack of a bed, and about
1,200 people are on the city's waiting list for methadone maintenance.
Across the United States, treatment programs can accommodate only
about 50 percent of hard-core users.

This, despite the fact that treatment is widely acknowledged to be
much cheaper than narcotics enforcement and interdiction efforts. For
example, for  the cost of a single customs department drug
surveillance plane - a reported  $47 million - the District could
treat all those on its waiting list and more.

But instead of treating drug addiction as a public health issue, we
continue  to criminalize it with endless street raids, sending
hundreds of thousands of  nonviolent drug offenders to prison. And
incarceration is yet another way our  policies actually promote drug
use. Almost half of all inmates at D.C.'s Lorton  prison are
nonviolent drug offenders, many of them sentenced under draconian 
federal laws requiring a mandatory minimum of five years in jail for
possessing  as little as 5 grams of crack - the weight of two pennies.

Any offender who isn't chronically deviant and prone to long-term drug
use  before incarceration has his chances ratcheted up significantly
during five  years' exposure to the violence and dysfunctions of
prison culture.

It's time to end what amounts to state sponsorship of drug use in our
cities. Let's increase and improve treatment and drug education
programs as a  first step toward gradual decriminalization and
possible legalization. Holland,  to cite an example, has seen no
significant increase in marijuana use since  legalizing coffee-house
consumption more than 20 years ago. Among young  adolescents, drug use
in Holland is actually lower than in the US.

Even with its risks and challenges, legalization seems to offer a
better alternative to the mess we have now, where tax dollars and
law-enforcement techniques police officers use actually encourage
young people - however inadvertently - to use drugs and take that
first fateful step toward addiction.

* Mike Tidwell is the author of 'In the Shadow of the White House:
Drugs death and redemption on the streets of the nation's capital' (Prima
Publishing,  1992). He lives in Takoma Park, Md.
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