ALBANY, N.Y. -- It was the limp that attracted John Burke's attention.
Like a lot of middle-aged guys, Mr. Burke owns tender, delicate knees. He watched the woman limp awkwardly into the restroom at the bus station, and he felt sorry for her.
When she came out, she wasn't limping any more. That's when John Burke's sympathy gave way to curiosity. Narcotics cops tend to be nosy people. And Inspector John Burke is the head narc in the Albany County sheriff's office.
The woman was a mule. She had drugs stashed beneath her skirt. She'd been limping into the restroom because the package was coming loose. After a search, she ended up as another drug bust. That happens to somebody in this country every 20 seconds.
As you read this, nearly 2 million Americans are behind bars. Four in five of them either violated drug or alcohol laws, were wasted at the time of their arrest, stole something for drug money or have histories of drug abuse and/or alcohol addiction.
We Americans are the most conspicuously stoned population in the industrialized world. This society has a drug problem because it has a demand problem, an apparently insatiable appetite for intoxication that lands roughly one American in 150 in the slammer at any given moment.
The New York State Department of Corrections estimates that at least three in four of its 71,000 inmates could benefit from drug treatment. Every year, it runs about 37 percent of the population through such programs.
Since the average inmate does 30 months, the state figures it pretty much exposes each inmate to treatment, but the recidivism rate for drug-related crime remains enormous.
That's because some people can't stay away from the stuff, and some just don't want to, not even after 30 months in the can. Also, there's huge money in the drug trade, and towering sums of money are spent fighting it.
John J. DiIulio, Jr., a criminologist of serious repute at the University of Pennsylvania, frets that it now costs so much money to imprison drug offenders that policing itself is at risk.
This wasn't a good week to snort nose candy on State Street in Albany. That's because about 800 narcs were at the Crowne Plaza hotel for the first meeting of the International Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association, studying ways to nail drug trade pros, who are increasingly shrewd.
The other day, a crew-cut Sgt. Mike Lewis of the Maryland State Police ran a seminar on interdiction, on spotting mules on the highway and locating their stashes in their vehicles. Experienced dealers and mules aren't in Beemers or Mercedes any more, he was saying. But keep your eyes peeled for more modest vehicles with tinted windows. Mules still don't like people seeing what goes on inside their cars.
In recent years, the cost of imprisoning so many druggies has become a political issue. We Americans now have more people in the slammer than any other democracy, mainly because of drugs. That's troubling stuff in a free society.
The real problem, though, is demand. We live in a drug and booze-soaked culture where use and even abuse is not only tolerated socially but increasingly accepted. Slowly, that attitude is bankrupting us.
And in more ways than one.
Dan Lynch is a columnist for the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.
Pub Date: 10/19/99