Bush's Plan Ignores Reality Of Why People Use Drugs And The Consequences

Posted: September 08, 1989

Say this for George Bush's first Oval Office speech: It lacked the pretense we had come to expect of presidents declaring their intention to wipe out drug use two weeks from Wednesday.

He described it as "a very difficult fight;" he did not pretend that the smoking of a marijuana joint was a clear and present danger to the republic; and for all the talk from his subalterns about the "casual drug user," most of his speech focused on cocaine, crack in particular, and what it was doing to our streets and our legal system.

That's the good news. The bad news is that there was no recognition from the President of the genuinely hard questions about drug policy - perhaps

because such recognition is beyond the courage of public officials.

In his briefing for the press on Tuesday, drug czar William J. Bennett said that what is "distinctive" about the Bush strategy "is that we identify the chief and seminal wrong here as drug use. Drug use, we say, is wrong."

The idea that it is "distinctive" is nonsense, but it is understandable; that is, it reflects the reality that just about all of the tangible elements in the Bush drug package - money for interdiction and more prisons, brave promises of military aid to drug-producing countries - mean nothing.

Build more prison space, and it will be instantly filled; put pressure on Colombia, and the drug producers will move to Bolivia or Panama or someplace else; seize 50 tons of coke, and 500 tons will come in from somewhere else.

Given the ideological underpinnings of the Bush administration, it makes sense for the President and his minions to emphasize the moral aspects of drug use, to assert a need for personal responsibility and for sanctions against those who use drugs.

What makes the concept nonsense as a strategy is that it has nothing to do with reality. That is, it has nothing to do with why people take drugs and with the consequences of drug-taking.

Why do people take drugs? To feel bad? No, to feel good. Drugs are an extremely effective means of changing consciousness, of feeling good. The trap, of course, is that some drugs will overwhelm some people, and others will overwhelm just about all people.

So taking drugs involves a risk that intelligent people shouldn't take. But, much as Bennett despises the analogy, that is true of all sorts of substances, legal or not. In fact, based on the danger to public health, it is much more true of cigarettes and alcohol than it is of at least some drugs.

What really makes the drug issue such a public menace is that in some of our communities, drug use has other, horrendous consequences: violent behavior triggered by crack cocaine, massive crimes committed by people who need money to buy drugs, and the inexorable growth of drug gangs who will slaughter anyone who gets in their way.

In other words - and in painfully uncomfortable words - all drug use is not created equal. All of it is dumb; much of it is self-destructive; but only some of it poses a grave threat to our public safety.

Someday a president may acknowledge the (literally) "un-American" notion that gathering smart men around a big table with charts and graphs does not ensure a happy ending. Someday a president may choose to recognize the hugely different kinds of drug abuse in America and put our money where the crisis is.

But not yet.

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