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The Baltimore Sun

Editorial: Harford's latest drug problem is just the latest in a losing effort

Generally, there are two major schools of thought when it comes to dealing with the social ills associated with drug abuse.

One theory says the abuse of illicit and illegal intoxicants is damaging to individuals, families and society, making it a criminal act that needs to be harshly addressed.

Another says drug abuse is a medical problem that is damaging to individuals, family and society and it needs to be addressed in a medical setting.

Unfortunately, the political discussion in Harford County, and across the U.S., generally fails to acknowledge that these seemingly divergent views on the problem aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Furthermore, there has been something of a tendency for middle class suburban drug abuse problems to be treated as medical issues, even as urban lower class drug abuse problems are more apt to attract a hard line response.

One thing is clear in the whole mess, however: decades afterPresident Richard M. Nixonfirst instituted a "war on drugs," few battles have been won, even as jails and prisons have been filled with drug users, street dealers and kingpins.

Speaking recently at a Harford County government organized symposium on illicit drug use in the county, Lt. Lee Dunbar, commander of the sheriff's office Narcotics Task Force, outlined one of the latest illicit drug threats: prescription drugs. He also went on to say of his agency: "We're going after the supply, but I think it's time to start looking at the demand."

Lt. Dunbar is no expert consultant from 50 miles away, nor is he a desk jockey with a corner office view of the situation on the street. He's spent much of his working life undercover in the county's narcotics enforcement operation, through changes in administrations. In court system records, he shows up as a participant in the investigation of hundreds of cases. When he says the latest big abuse problem locally is prescription drugs and characterizes a segment of the medical community as being a key part of the problem, there's reason for a measure of public outrage at that segment of the medical community.

Though the situation is one that calls for a fairly harsh crackdown, it also is one that illustrates the depth of the problem. It hardly seems likely someone with a medical degree, who is writing prescriptions for painkillers to a patient who complains of pain, with a wink and a nod, will end up in the same jail cell as a heroin dealer, even though both may be equally destructive to individuals, families and society.

Possibly a more pragmatic approach would be one borrowed from the architects of a war that was won. Many historians have drawn the conclusion that President Abraham Lincoln became an advocate of the notion that the war should be made hard for the South, even as the terms of peace should be easy. To this end, the generals he settled on to prosecute the Civil War, U.S. Grant and William Sherman, have become legendary for devising what would become known as total war. Even as Sherman cut a swath of destruction across Dixie, and Grant's initials were said to stand for "Unconditional Surrender," it was Grant who offered generous terms to Gen. Robert E. Lee. Generations later, it appears the choice between a harsh war and an easy peace may well have allowed the wounded and imperfect republic to heal.

In the war on drugs, the easy peace of treatment-only options has met with limited success, as has the total war approach of arrest and incarceration. Possibly by combining the two in a consistent way over a long period would yield better results.

One thing, however, is fairly certain. If the prescription drug scourge that is Harford County's latest abuse epidemic is dealt with in a take-no-prisoners sort of way, the prescription drug problem will probably fade, only to be replaced with another drug problem, be it a resurgence of an old plague like heroin or the emergence of a new, synthetic one.

As long as there is a demand for illegal intoxicants, someone will find a way to make money meeting that demand and filling it with new products.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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