FOR a year or so, I flirted with the idea of drug legalization.
After all, are not the worst aspects of our national drug problem actually correlatives of illegality? When people speak of the drug problem, don't they really mean crime and drugs?
We currently spend about $11 billion per year to combat drug-related crime. If we were to legalize drugs, the price would instantly drop, and far fewer users would be tempted to steal for the money to buy a fix. Moreover, drug dealers, who today are responsible for about 40 deaths per month in my city of Washington, D.C., would no longer resort to barbaric measures to settle commercial disputes. They would have access to the courts like other businessmen.
Add to that the appealing libertarian argument that it is foolhardy to stand in the way of a willing buyer and a willing seller. We can never hope to make a dent in supply when demand is so insistent.
Such arguments swayed Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke. But a recent issue of Commentary magazine throws a bracing bucket of ice water on such musings and reminds us, more fundamentally, what this debate is really all about.
James Q. Wilson points out something instructive about Vietnam veterans. Remember the fears that our servicemen, who apparently helped themselves to generous amounts of heroin while serving in Asia, would return home and flood the nation with new addicts? It never happened. Why?
According to a study by Lee Robins of Washington University, most vets gave up the drug upon returning home because instead of the easy availability they had experienced in Vietnam, getting heroin in the United States meant venturing into dangerous neighborhoods, risking unsafe doses and possibly getting arrested. In other words, keeping the drug illegal worked as it was supposed to -- it deterred potential addicts. And is there any doubt that if we had legalized heroin in 1972 -- if $H returning soldiers could have purchased it at the local pharmacy along with clean hypodermic needles -- that addiction rates would have soared?
Mr. Wilson next examines the oft-cited example of Great Britain's experiment with drug legalization. Definitions of a successful policy vary, but if containing the number of drug abusers is the criterion, the British experiment was a bust. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of British heroin addicts increased thirtyfold.
And during the 1980s, it increased by as much as 40 percent per year.
Ah, but haven't we experienced the same problem even despite our vaunted law enforcement efforts? The answer, perhaps surprisingly given the hype, is no. Fifteen years ago, there were 500,000 heroin addicts in America. Today, we have the same number. The pool of addicts is getting smaller as a percentage of the population. That's still a lot of junkies, but it is basically the same pool of people, getting older. And it suggests that keeping the drug illegal at least served to contain the feared epidemic.
Now the dreaded drug is crack cocaine. Legalization advocates argue that law enforcement has failed. But wait a minute. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that only 5 percent of high school seniors have used cocaine within the last 30-day period. What deters the remaining 95 percent? Or, to put it another way, what would deter the remaining 95 percent if cocaine were inexpensive, pure and available at the 7-Eleven?
We have an answer. We know what happened when Prohibition was repealed -- an explosion of alcohol abuse. It's too late to undo the damage there, but can we afford to invite a similar disaster with drugs?
The word "we" is critical, for at the heart of this debate is the question: Does our society have the right to enforce certain kinds of moral behavior?
A society, particularly a democratic one, must maintain some standards of self-control and responsibility. It does damage all of us if sizable numbers cannot report for work, care for children or drive on the right side of the road.
We must pick up the pieces a drug abuser leaves behind -- a crack-addicted baby, an AIDS-infected spouse, a fatherless child. The strain is showing now. It's hard to imagine the wreckage 20 million legal drug users would create. Reason enough to stay the course.
Mona Charen is on maternity leave. This column was first distributed in February 1990.