Gen. Gary: A New Drug Warrior Suits Up For Battle

We understand the skepticism that greeted Anne Arundel County Executive John Gary's county-wide mailing last week of an anti-drug letter and questionnaire.

Gary is up for re-election this year. Not only will he have a Democratic opponent in November; he also has drawn a formidable Republican primary challenger in Council Member Diane Evans. So why wouldn't eyebrows hike when Gary spends $70,000 of taxpayers money to trumpet the County Executive's Criminal Justice Drug Intervention Program?

Admittedly, we're suspicious not just of Gary's $70,000 mailing but of the county's recent decision to plow $2.5 million in budget surplus into the so-called "war on drugs." As in the War on Poverty, it seems that in this war, too, the more money spent, the worse the problem. We can think of a few other uses for that money; one is a tax cut and another is converting more sensitive, waterfront land to parks.

Yet we intend to withhold judgment on Gary's initiative. There is nothing wrong with a debate about drugs - especially if that debate exists in reality rather than in fantasy land.

Time and time again, politicians base drug policy on moralism instead of pragmatism. "Criminal justice" remains the rallying cry; we've locked up 400,000 people in the country for drug offenses - eight times the amount behind bars in 1980. In 1996, 650,000 people were arrested for marijuana - more than double the number in 1991.

Yet, as Gary observes in his letter, "we've seen few tangible results."

It's easy to see why, given the blinders we wear. Cops, military leaders and protectors of public morality become drug czars, but never public health experts.

Europe, the part of the world most like ours, has had success in what are called "harm-reduction" strategies. This means, to a limited extent, admitting that drugs are here to stay and going from there. (In Switzerland, a pilot program prescribing heroin to 1,000 addicts resulted in a 60 percent drop in their criminal offenses and a doubling in their stable employment. Swiss voters were so impressed that in a referendum last fall, 71 percent voted to continue this program and other harm-reduction initiatives.)

Elsewhere in the world, needle exchanges have helped to keep down the rate of new HIV infections, studies have shown. Decriminalization of marijuana is the trend.

But in the U.S., needle exchanges are politically risky and "zero tolerance" is the slogan.

When public figures such as former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke called for re-examining policies, they were ridiculed and accused of championing the legalization of drugs. No wonder few politicians have the courage to talk about what works, what doesn't work and what might work if given a chance.

Things have become so absurd that an effort by farmers to grow harmless hemp as a commercial crop is meeting resistance in Washington because, drug warriors say, it would send a bad signal.

Why not have a debate? Gary refers in his letter to alternative sentencing and helping violators become "productive, contributing members of society." Let's see what he means.

In question No. 6, Gary asked for your comments and suggestions. If he wants an election-year debate on drugs, let's give him one.

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VolumeVI Number 13
April 2-8, 1998
New Bay Times

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