Pubdate: Mon, 30 Aug 1999
Source: Standard-Times (MA)
Copyright: 1999 The Standard-Times
Contact:  25 Elm Street, New Bedford, MA 02740
Author: Froma Harrop 
Note: The writer is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist


PROVIDENCE, R.I. George W. Bush vows that he has not used illegal drugs for
the last 25 years, by which we may infer that 26 years ago, he did.
Republican Party leaders are standing by their man. No cynic should find
this surprising, though I had clung to a naive expectation that the party of
moral rectitude might prefer a candidate who had probably not committed a
youthful felony. And so George W. Bush's quest for the White House rolls

Before leaving the subject of drug use, though, I would like to raise strong
objections to at least two of the defensive rationales being put forth by
Bush supporters. One is that "experimenting" (don't you love that word?)
with hard drugs was "a rite of passage for baby boomers" in the '70s. They
all did it. The other is that using illegal drugs is really a victimless crime.

Let me state right here: I am a Baby Boomer, and I have never ever used
cocaine or any other hard drug. And I did not spend the '70s in a convent. I
spent them in Greenwich Village. (I did try pot twice. Mom, Dad, I'm sorry.)
My friends and I did not break the law regarding hard drugs for two reasons.
One: We believed the health warnings that taking drugs would fry our brains.
Two: Getting caught would have dire consequences.

Over the last decade or so, drug use has become more casual and
democratized, but it was considered a very serious crime 25 years ago. In
1973, New York State passed a draconian law imposing mandatory jail time for
drug possession and automatic life sentences for dealing. The office worker
convicted for possessing the tiniest amount of cocaine would have lost his
or her job by nightfall. A lawyer would be booted out of the Bar. Yes, a
good number of middle-class people used drugs in the '70s, but it was not
everybody or even close to everybody. Most who did seemed to be artists or
rich kids who thumbed their noses at rules governing the working stiffs.

Let us now examine rationalization number two, that drug use falls into the
category of "victimless crime." This is also not so. As long as drug use
remains illegal, those who live near the drug marketplaces will suffer from
resulting crime and violence.

Later in the '70s, I moved to Manhattan Valley, a mostly poor, black and
Latino outpost on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Because Manhattan Valley's
population did include a group of middle-class gentrifiers like myself, it
became a major emporium for well-to-do people seeking drugs. Put bluntly, a
white kid in his Chevy Camaro with New Jersey plates and holding a wad of
drug money would not want to stop in an angry black ghetto to pick up his
recreational narcotics. So he came to Manhattan Valley, where there was a
protective middle-class presence but not enough social stability to keep out
the drug trade.

Manhattan Valley became the place where drug dealers could connect with real
money. As a result, life for the residents turned to hell. There were
shootings nightly. Usually, the drug merchants hit their intended and
unlamented targets, but stray bullets would hit innocents with some
regularity. The victims were often children who had not yet figured out
which streets were safe and which were not. Law-abiding residents began to
regard the crawling line of polished cars waiting for their drug pickups
with disgust.

Poor people were most likely to get caught in the crossfire of warring drug
dealers (at least we had doormen). The poor were the first to get nabbed for
drug use by law enforcement officers, who rarely invaded upscale cocktail
parties in which lines of coke were passed around on silver trays.

This is why I admire New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson's suggestion that the
federal government decriminalize or even legalize drugs. Governor Johnson, a
Republican who admits to cocaine use in college, seems to understand the
hypocrisy underlying our drug laws. That insight is lacking in Governor
Bush, who has backed a Texas law that sends people possessing a single gram
of what he probably used to possess to jail.

I still believe that drugs fry the brain, and will never use them. But if
hard drugs were legalized, the nasty illegal market for narcotics would dry
up. Taking drugs would become just another self-destructive but legal
activity, like smoking or getting drunk.

And, importantly, everybody would finally be playing by the same set of rules.

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