WASHINGTON -- Setting off a firestorm that the administration immediately tried to extinguish, Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders said yesterday that she believes the legalization of drugs would dramatically reduce the nation's soaring crime rate.
Speaking about violence as a public health issue at a National Press Club luncheon, Dr. Elders noted that the majority of violent crimes involve alcohol or drug use and asserted that other
nations have legalized drugs with positive results.
"I do feel we'd markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized," she said in response to a question. "I don't know all the ramifications, but I do feel we need to do some studies. Some other countries that have legalized drugs, they certainly -- have shown that there has been a reduction in their crime rate, and there has been no increase in their drug rate."
Dr. Elders, a former Arkansas health director known for setting off sparks with her provocative statements, said she had not discussed the issue with President Clinton and didn't have enough data or specifics about drug legalization elsewhere. She said she didn't know, for instance, which countries had experimented with it, but knew there were one or two.
"I can't take a stand on something that I don't have data to prove, but I certainly think it's worth studying," she told reporters after her speech. "I know we're looking at all means to deal with violence in our country, and we've not really used many of the methods that we can use. I think we've got to consider all methods."
As her remarks generated consternation among law enforcement officials, the White House was quick to distance itself from Dr. Elders' remarks yesterday.
"The president is against legalizing drugs, and he's not interested in studying the issue," said Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary. "She expressed a personal opinion. . . . It's been made clear to her that the president doesn't share that view."
In fact, as a presidential candidate, Mr. Clinton said he was "adamantly opposed to legalizing drugs." During the first presidential debate, he said his brother, Roger, a recovering drug addict, might not be alive today if drugs were legal.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- who has long attracted angry attacks for his advocacy of decriminalization of drugs -- said that Dr. Elders' call for an examination of alternatives to current drug policies "makes a lot of sense."
Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who led the opposition to Dr. Elders' nomination last summer, immediately called for her resignation yesterday.
"I think it is outrageous for the nation's top health official to talk about legalizing drugs," he said in a statement. ". . . She should be replaced."
And Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the minority leader, quipped, "Americans must be wondering if the surgeon general is hazardous to our health."
Throughout the Clinton administration, officials quickly made their opposition to drug legalization known.
Spokesmen for Attorney General Janet Reno and drug czar Lee Brown pointed out that the two officials have spoken out forcefully against drug legalization in the past.
"The attorney general does not favor drug legalization," said Carl Stern, the Justice Department spokesman. "She believes in the carrot-and-stick approach with respect to drug offenders. . . . Were it not for the existence of punishment -- the probability of punishment -- she believes first-time drug offenders would not seek drug treatment."
Frank Shults, the Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman, said Dr. Elders' remarks were the "wrong message at the wrong time. When you begin to look very deeply at legalizing drugs, it is certainly not an answer to America's drug abusing problem."
But Dr. Elders, outspoken in the past on such delicate subjects as distribution of condoms in schools and early sex education, said yesterday that the administration should not back away from the issue just because it is controversial.
Advocates of drug legalization applauded Dr. Elders' statements. Eric E. Sterling, president of Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, pointed to successes in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, where there have been soft policies toward possession and personal use of drugs.
"Nobody wants to see heroin sold like tomatoes," Mr. Sterling said. But, he added, policing and regulating the business would "get the violence out of what is now a completely x gangster-driven market."
Opponents of legalization, however, dispute the notion that, as Dr. Elders said, European countries that have experimented with variations on the legalization theme have seen a reduction in crime and a reduction in drug use.
On the contrary, such experiments have been "dismal," said Bill Alden, a retired DEA official who heads the Washington office of DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
In Switzerland, he said, a park that allowed the use and sale of drugs resulted in an increase in crime.