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June 22, 2004 - The Ledger-Enquirer (GA)

A Tale Of Two Wars On Drugs

By Dusty Nix

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Consider two "drug wars" -- one a highly and expensively hyped crusade, the other quieter; but both of tremendous social, economic, legal and cultural significance over the last few decades.

One, waged principally against opiates, cannabis and cocaine by state and federal governments for more than 20 years, has cost billions, perhaps trillions of dollars in taxpayer money; taxed the resources of already overworked law enforcement agencies; sustained a criminal empire the size and riches of which would dwarf the booze kingpins of the 1920s and '30s; created, with the help of "mandatory sentencing" politics, an unprecedented corrections crisis by stuffing prisons to bursting with drug offenders; and provided the dubious rationale for abrogating the Bill of Rights to an extent even the Patriot Act hasn't approached.

And even the front-line troops in this war have acknowledged it's a losing campaign.

"Drug war" No. 2, which hasn't generated nearly as much attention -- which, in fact, few people have thought of as a "drug war" at all -- has involved relatively little public money, no prison space, little or no effort on the part of law enforcement.

Nobody's been randomly summoned away from a desk or work site to urinate into a cup. And it has been waged against a drug that every year claims more lives than all illegal substances combined.

But the vast differences in expense and approach aren't the most dramatic distinction here. The biggest difference is that one of them has worked.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported last week that smoking among American teens is at its lowest level in almost 30 years -- an achievement the CDC attributes principally to anti-smoking campaigns and higher cigarette prices.

Dr. John Banzhaf III, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health and professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School, called it "probably the most dramatic progress which has been made in terms of any public health problem, at least in recent memory."

So providing people with education and information has proven dramatically effective in curbing use of a drug some experts have said is as addictive as heroin; while draconian laws and sentences and self-incrimination policies have created more problems than they have solved.

Surely there's a lesson in there somewhere.

- Dusty Nix, for the editorial board

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