National Review, Feb. 26 1996, "On the Right" column, p. 70

Misfire On Drug Policy

By Wm. F. Buckley Jr.
New York, January 30

The bipartisan Council on Crime in America, whose most conspicuous spokesman is William Bennett, does fine work, but when it touches on the matter of drugs its analytical powers simply decompose, as though the writer were high on crack cocaine or the legal stuff.

Last week the Council exploded in opposition to the call for an approach to the legalization of drugs made by seven writers (myself included) in this journal. To the title of the symposium -- "The War on Drugs Is Lost'' -- the Council replies that that is most certainly not so. To the end of proving this, it cites the reduction of drug use by non-addicts. It declined by 50 per cent between 1979 and 1992. The planted axiom of course is that that decline is owing to the war on drugs. But what is it that accounts for the decline in the number of users of tobacco during the same period, from 33.5 million to 26.5 million? The use of tobacco is not illegal. But since 1979, and beginning even before that, the deleterious effect of cigarettes was so persuasively argued that even William Bennett gave up smoking.

A look at the formal side of the war on drugs is required. If something is illegal, then the law that makes it so is effective to the extent that it imprisons those who violate it, thereby hypothetically reducing the number of lawbreakers.

That would seem obvious, but isn't to the distinguished members of the Council on Crime in America. In 1985, 811,000 arrests were made for drug offenses. In 1994, 1.35 million arrests were made for drug offenses. Does that mean that the war on drugs is effective? Well, no. An effective law diminishes, rather than increases, the number of violators who have to be arrested.

And then of course one asks, If 1.35 million drug users were arrested in 1994, how many drug users were not arrested? The Council informs us that there are more than 4 million casual users of cocaine (defined as people who use it less than once a week). How so? Why haven't they been arrested? And goes on to say that there are over 2.2 million heavy (at least weekly) users. That makes a total of 6.2 million who violate the law from once a week, to every two weeks or so. How effective is the war when such figures can be cited? Now take the big one. There are over 70 million Americans who have smoked marijuana, and about 10 million who continue to do so. Why aren't they in jail? Does the Council on Crime in America really wish that they were in jail?

It must have embarrassed the Council that the same week it sputtered forth on the great success of the war on drugs, The Economist cited another Council report on crime in America which gainsays its entire position on the drug war. We learn that only one criminal is jailed for every hundred violent crimes committed; that over one-half of America's convicted felons are not sentenced to prison (because, in part, the prisons are full); that the most violent criminals serve less than one-half their sentences, and the average murderer released in 1992 from a state prison had served only 5.9 years.

The Economist cites the experience of a patrolman in Haughville, a scruffy area of Indianapolis. ``He drives up and down in the evenings, past anoraked figures who stand outside liquor stores and turn their faces from him. He can guess what they are; few people apart from drug dealers stand around on nights like this, when the puddles in the potholes freeze hard. Besides, Patrolman Reichle knows most of them: he reckons he has arrested one in five of these young men.''

City prosecutors "do not even bring charges against drug dealers until they have been arrested several times. Those who do get charged and found guilty will not go to prison, unless they have other convictions. President Bill Clinton's call for a crackdown on drug dealers sounds pretty hollow in Haughville."

Such is overcrowding in state prisons in Indiana -- notwithstanding that the national increase in prison space is threefold since we decided to wage hard war on drugs -- that even a relatively new American prison might have merited describing by Charles Dickens. ``Prisoners pass their days in narrow, ill-lit cages; there are no chairs or tables, so the men pace up and down like zoo animals or slouch upon the floor.''

So what has the war done? It has made a mockery of an anti-drug law that is simply ignored by millions; it has induced violent felonies in pursuit of drug profits; and it is self-evidently powerless to do anything about the recent increase in marijuana use by reckless adolescents. It is a pity that men and women of the moral and intellectual character of William Bennett treat drug legalization as the equivalent of moral acquiescence in drug abuse, when other reasons for repealing our stupid laws are so clearly articulated, primary among them to relieve non-drug users from the heavy load they bear in the phony and ineffective war. One forgets -- who won the Hundred Years War back then? Was it really necessary to take it on for one hundred years?

Universal Press Syndicate


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