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January 5, 1998, Monday
Section: Editorial Desk

Abroad at Home; The Noble Experiment


By ANTHONY LEWIS

Practicality has been a feature of American life from the start, and a reason for the country's success. Americans on the whole eschewed ideology. We judged ideas by whether they worked. When they didn't, we tried something else.

A strange contemporary exception to that tradition is the war on drugs. By any rational test it is an overwhelming failure. Yet our leading politicians persist in calling for ever more stringent measures to enforce the policy of total prohibition, doing their best to prevent even a discussion of alternatives.


In 1980, the Federal Government and the states spent perhaps $4 billion on drug control; today the figure is at least $32 billion. The number of people in prison on drug charges has also multiplied by eight: from 50,000 to 400,000.

Yet the use of forbidden drugs remains a reality of American life. Supplies are plentiful despite costly attempts to stop the production of drugs in other countries.

The human cost of the drug war is worse than the financial cost. In 1996, for example, 545,000 Americans were arrested for possession of marijuana, giving these mostly young people a criminal record for use of a drug as accepted in much of their culture as alcohol in ours. Thousands -- many thousands -- of people are serving long terms in prison for a first, nonviolent drug offense.

But is there an alternative way of dealing with the grave human and social problem of drug abuse? Yes, there is. It is explored in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, in an illuminating article by Ethan A. Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center in New York, a drug policy research institute.

The alternative is to acknowledge what Americans came to understand about alcohol after 14 years of the noble experiment, Prohibition. That is, as Mr. Nadelmann puts it, ''that drugs are here to stay, and that we have no choice but to learn how to live with them so that they cause the least possible harm.''

The harm-reduction approach to drugs is in growing use throughout Europe. That includes a country as bourgeois and conservative as Switzerland.

In 1974 Switzerland began an experiment allowing doctors to prescribe heroin, morphine or injectable methadone for 1,000 hardened heroin addicts. The results, reported last July, showed that criminal offenses by the group dropped 60 percent, illegal heroin and cocaine use fell dramatically, health was greatly improved, and stable employment rose.

Swiss voters overwhelmingly support the policy. In a national referendum in September, 71 percent of voters voted for it.

Another policy adopted in much of Western Europe, Australia and Canada is to allow exchange of used needles for clean ones. This has had an important effect in reducing H.I.V. infections. In the United States, despite proposals for needle exchange by commissions starting under President Bush, the White House and Congress have blocked the use of drug-abuse funds for that purpose. The result, Mr. Nadelmann says, has been the infection of up to 10,000 people with H.I.V.

Similarly with marijuana, the practice in much of Western Europe is not to prosecute for mere possession. In the U.S., a commission appointed by President Nixon proposed in 1972 that possession of up to one ounce of marijuana be decriminalized. The proposal got nowhere, and White House intransigence is unchanged. After Californians voted to allow medical use, the White House drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, hurried to warn that Federal law still made it a crime for doctors to prescribe it.

''Most proponents of harm reduction do not favor legalization,'' Mr. Nadelmann writes. But ''they recognize that prohibition has failed to curtail drug abuse, that it is responsible for much of the crime, corruption, disease and death associated with drugs and that its costs mount every year.''

A good many Americans, including police chiefs and doctors, believe that it is time for a change in our failed drug policy. It is our political leaders who are afraid to change. It will take someone with the courage to say that the emperor has no clothes -- someone like Senator John McCain -- to end our second, disastrous noble experiment.



Organizations mentioned in this article:
Foreign Affairs (Magazine)

Related Terms:
Drug Abuse and Traffic


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