Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

In “Who Is Addicted to What?,” Midge Decter’s critique of an article by Barbara Ehrenreich [Contentions, April], I found the dismissal of Ehrenreich’s main point, that society is hypocritical in its enforcement of drug laws, rather flippant. Does an argument need to be new to be valid?

Miss Decter goes on to make the point that we as a society need to be concerned about the messages we are sending our young. It might be useful, then, to look at the messages we, through our judicial system, are actually sending. At a recent Grateful Dead concert, a twenty-year-old boy was arrested for purchasing LSD from an undercover Drug Enforcement Agency officer. Through a loose interpretation of current sentencing guidelines, the LSD, along with the sugar cube it was dissolved in, was weighed—as if the sample were pure LSD. Accordingly, it was determined that the quantity of LSD, though only one dose, put the boy in the same class as a drug dealer and was sufficient to merit a 22-year jail sentence without parole.

To allow prison space for “hardened” criminals like this young man, the average sentence for attempted murder in this country has fallen to six-and-one-half years. When society metes out punishment in this fashion, what kind of confirmation exists for the lawabiders who sit back and watch it happen? And as for the unfortunate and mostly nonviolent few who are actually imprisoned for this type of illegal possession, what kind of message do they receive? Does it really teach anyone a healthy respect for the law to see murderers and rapists go free while first-time drug users are locked up?

The simple fact that a law exists does not in itself provide justification for its enforcement. That is the philosophy behind the creation of the judicial branch of government—to rule on the constitutionality of existing laws. Of course we need to teach our young the virtues and benefits of living within the limits set by one’s community. We have an equal obligation to teach our young that the community is not the sole arbiter of morals, that we also need our family, our culture, and our God.

It is from this perspective we should be fighting the “war” on drugs. The abuse of drugs is not wrong because of any written law. The abuse of any drug, including legal ones, is wrong because it saps our spiritual strength, destroys our families, and deprives the community of the contribution all of us have an obligation to make. This moral framework goes beyond legislation.

Frederick G.S. Deal
Tempe, Arizona



To the Editor:

For the first time in my life, I find myself agreeing with Barbara Ehrenreich. In her column, she listed many practical arguments against drug prohibition, but omitted the strongest one of all: the inherent dangers of fighting “victimless” crime.

To illustrate, let us compare the drug trade with the dissemination of samizdat literature in the old Soviet empire. Morally, the two activities are, of course, worlds apart. However, from the police point of view, they present similar law-enforcement problems; no aggrieved party (i.e., victim) is likely to notify them that a crime has taken place. Therefore, the police must insinuate themselves into these “criminal” transactions in order to combat them.

This necessarily involves various highly dubious tactics: the use of informants, agents provocateurs, wiretaps, mass searches and seizures, etc., all of which tend to erode personal liberty (rather severely in the Soviet instance).

Already, measures such as random drug testing have made a mockery of the presumption of innocence. As public frustration with crime continues (quite understandably) to grow, politicians and judges are likely further to increase the size and power of the various anti-drug bureaucracies; where will it—can it—end?

It would appear that a better approach would be the one recommended by such sober folk as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Shultz, Milton Friedman, and the editors of the Economist magazine: legalize but discourage. Such an approach has been proven to work; after all, tobacco use in North America has been cut in half without resorting to prohibition.

It is unfortunate that conservatives, normally so rightly suspicious of increased government power, suffer from a curious blind spot when confronting this particular issue.

Please bear in mind that creating a new KGB or Gestapo is too high a price to pay for a drug-free society.

Gordon C. Galland
London, Ontario, Canada



To the Editor:

A study by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration discloses that the number of patients coming to hospital emergency rooms with drug-connected problems increased 10 percent in 1992. The study reveals that cocaine-related hospital visits figured in more than 25 percent of the 433,500 emergency-room visits blamed on illegal drug use; heroin-related visits rose 34 percent to 48,000; and marijuana-related visits increased 48 percent to 24,000.

Moreover, a new study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out that teenage drug use has sharply increased; the study also reveals that teenage alcohol use and cigarette smoking are on the rise.

Some people insist that the solution to the nationwide epidemic of drug abuse is the legalization of drugs; but this nation has already experimented with the legalization of heroin and cocaine, and the experiment failed. In 1909, Dr. Lyman Kebler, then chief of the Drugs Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, described the pernicious personal and social consequences of drug legalization:

Cocaine, in some cases, transforms safe and otherwise tractable citizens into dangerous characters, and, in most instances, wrecks the individual and those dependent upon him. . . . In districts where druggists dispense cocaine, disorder has increased so noticeably that it is commented upon by the neighbors and the police officers on the beats.

Man is by nature a social animal; we need other human beings, and they need us. From these elementary truths, we can understand that we possess social and moral obligations that sometimes require us to subordinate our private, selfish interests and pursuits for the sake of the common good. By keeping drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, PCP, and LSD illegal, the state is asking people to sacrifice a little bit of freedom for the moral well-being of society. This is a valuable lesson for people to learn.

Haven Bradford Gow
Arlington Heights, Illinois



Midge Decter writes:

To Frederick G.S. Deal: There is no question that this society’s efforts to deal with the curse of drug use have been anything but successful. In fact, as I suggested, they are in a mess. But you seem to suppose that pointing out the moral insanity of much of our treatment of murderers and rapists (I would add child molesters and abusers to the list) strengthens your argument for decriminalization. Whereas all you have done is to underline the need to liberate our criminal-justice system from its by now hidebound tradition of misguided (sometimes perverted) constitutional understandings. With this I would heartily concur. Another point with which I heartily agree is that, in your words, the “moral framework goes beyond legislation.” But the law is not something separate from that framework; it is, or at least is intended to be, a communal expression of it, made necessary precisely by the fact that we humans have so often proven to be fallen from “our family, our culture, and our God.”

To Gordon C. Galland: “Legalize but discourage,” attractive as any conservative is bound to find it, is a policy based on a purely abstract principle, without consideration of the particular and concrete case. The parallel you draw with cigarette smoking, for instance, simply doesn’t wash in the realm of actual experience. Cigarettes, while certainly addictive, are not like drugs: they do not, for one thing, induce a simulacrum of ecstasy and power that ever after must be longed-for and increasingly unattainable and hence make life with or without them equally unendurable; and no one who smokes cigarettes is ever for one moment deceived into thinking that he is doing something in any respect praiseworthy. The 60’s counterculture and its toadies so deceived at least one generation and at the very least created an enormous confusion in the “discourage” department from which we are not likely to emerge for a very, very long time. Remember the jeering that greeted Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign? Drugs, to borrow from Mr. Dooley, ain’t bean-bag.

As for your comparison with samizdat, I will in kindness pass it by without comment.

To Haven Bradford Gow, I would only add that, historically speaking, Americans have never enjoyed so much license to engage in potentially hurtful behavior as they do now—or had so little sacrifice for the sake of the moral well-being of society exacted from them.

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