HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Battle Fatigue In The War On Drugs
Pubdate: 14 Mar 1999
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Steve Heilig
Page: 4 (Book Review)


Three books urge treatment and prevention instead of crime & punishment.

Drugs are front page news again, with reports of heroin overdoses and
suffering striking in high and low places. But, unfortunately, this problem
is not new.

Drug abuse has continually been named one of America's most serious
problems for more than a century. And for the past few decades, politicians
have declared war on a wide range of illegal drugs.

So how goes this lengthy campaign? According to the authors of three
compelling books on American drug policies, the drug war has been a failure
on many fronts. More than one-third of Americans over I I have consumed
illegal drugs and use of such drugs has fluctuated regardless of government

Our prisons are overflowing from drug-related convictions, while
drug-related crime has risen; AIDS has spread among drug users-drug
treatment is often not available to those who want it. doctors are afraid
to prescribe even needed medications; and countless lives are being ruined
by the drug war's policies.

As New York journalist Michael Massing states bluntly in THE FIX (Simon &
Schuster; 335 pages; $25), "It would be hard to think of an area of U.S.
social policy that has failed more completely than the war on drugs."

According to Mike Gray, a Hollywood screenwriter and producer and author of
DRUG CRAZY: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out (Random House;
251 pages; $23.95), the best measure of failure comes from the law of
supply and demand: "After blowing hundreds of billions of dollars and tens
of thousands of lives, the drugs on the street today are stronger, cheaper,
more pure and more widely available than at any time in history." Further,
the drug war has poisoned much else in American society, "blanketing the
nation in a smog of delusion so pervasive nobody can see it, even as it
warps U.S. foreign policy, corrodes the Bill of Rights and successfully
reverses years of progress in race relations."

Strong words indeed, but Massing and Gray, who might both be seen as
liberal critics, are joined from the right by Southern California
businessman Dirk Chase Eldredge, author of ENDING THE WAR ON DRUGS: A
Solution for America (Bridge Works; 207 pages; $22.95).

A conservative Republican, Eldredge argues that our efforts have been based
largely on ignorance about the true risks of most drugs. 'Fighting the war
on drugs with myths is a lot like hurling boomerangs at the enemy," he
writes.  "They are unlikely to do the opponent any harm, and are likely to
return to the throwers with devastating force."

All three authors say that the majority of people who experiment socially
with illegal drugs suffer little harm and do not progress to addiction.
Eldredge notes that the actual dangers posed by illegal drugs are dwarfed
by the hazards of legal ones: "When compared to the annual number of
premature deaths from tobacco (400,000) and from alcohol (100,000), drug
deaths lag far behind."

Gray agrees: "The medical literature is filled with thoroughly documented
records of addicts who functioned normally throughout their lives."

It's also true that the vast majority of casual users of drugs such as
marijuana do not go on to try harder drugs. Even for those who do, "fewer
than I percent of those who try cocaine become daily users," as Eldredge

Such facts have been known for a long time, but, as Gray points out,

ideological opposition to any kind of drug use or to any hint of its
approval have "overwhelmed the handful of scientists who tried to put the
brakes on this juggernaut."

For example, Massing relates how one medical expert, San Francisco's Dr.
David Smith, founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinics, was
labeled as "pro-drug" in the '80s by anti-drug parent activists.

"Having [Smith] on programs to fight drug use is like having Adolf Hitler
teaching the American Generals how to fight the German Army," wrote one
such parent who was "disgusted" by Smith's factual, non judgmental approach
to drug education.

And with the rise of the "Just Say No" movement, "the most remembered
phrase of the Reagan presidency ... and the most ridiculed," all discussion
of such innovative strategies as methadone maintenance or needle exchange
"were just out.... You had to just say no to all of it."

By the end of the '80s, "Just Say No" was a largely discredited and
commercialized slogan, but the effect of its "zero tolerance" imperative
has been more lasting and pernicious. To implement that policy, the
government has turned to the military and the police.

The failures of alcohol prohibition earlier in the century are wellknown,
but the situation now is even worse. Addicts have no constituency, Gray
notes, and since Prohibition, "whenever senators or congressmen found
themselves outflanked on the right, they could come down on addicts like
avenging angels to prove how tough they were on crime."

In the process, the courts have been swamped with futile "revolving door"
arrests on the one extreme and handing out inhumane mandatory sentences on
the other. Bribery and other scandals are rife among enforcement
authorities, for as Eldredge quips, "corruption is the cancer, money the

Addiction has been a nightmare for millions of Americans, and drugrelated
crime has destroyed many communities. But while they differ somewhat in the
details, these writers, none of whom could be called soft on drugs, all
agree that we need a radically different approach to these problems.

What then should be done? The consensus here is that a public
health-oriented approach is needed, focusing on prevention and treatment
rather than crime and punishment.

Prevention relies on reality-based education, argues Gray, for "apparently
the one sure-fire way to cut down on drug use is to give people the facts
and let them use their own judgment." Eldredge argues that "just as we
cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem, neither can we frighten our
way out."

Guaranteed treatment for addicts, both free and imprisoned, is also
necessary, without the long waiting lists that has those who want to quit
drugs being, as Massing puts it, " sucked back into the street."

Contrary to popular perception, drug treatment, while admittedly far from
foolproof, is preferable to the law enforcement approach, even for
preventing crime and saving money

In order to implement these and other policy improvements, such as the
decriminalization of marijuana (which was favored in California and four
other states in recent elections), drug laws would need to be c hanged,
entailing a lot of activism and education.

These books are welcome in terms of educating the public. Gray and
Massing's books are the more scholarly, and they admirably summarize the
complex history of our drug policies. They also effectively utilize "street
stories" featuring cops, addicts, drug treatment workers and more to
illustrate the reallife impact of drug policies.

Eldredge's book is more of a populist polemic, but no less effective for
that. All three lend powerful support to the growing list of observers of
all political and professional stripes who are questioning the path the
United States is on. But it is still unknown whether these crucial and
eloquent calls for reform will be heeded.

Steve Heilig is on the staff of the San Francisco Medical Society,co-editor
of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics and guest editor of the
Journal of Psychoactive Drugs published at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics. 
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