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February 25, 2005 -The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Frank Talk About Drugs Could Do Us All Some Good

By Bill McClellan, Of The Post-Dispatch

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Thirty years ago, I lived in a small apartment near a dry riverbed about two blocks from Mill Avenue in Tempe, Ariz.

The big literary event of each month was the arrival in a local head shop - Mill was lined with them - of the latest edition of the comic book, The Furry Freak Brothers. The brothers' motto was this: Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.

To be entirely honest about it, I had much more experience with the no-money part.

There will be readers, I'm sure, who will be appalled by that statement. There are always appalled readers when I write about my past use of marijuana. They aren't so much upset by my history of drug use as they are of my flippant admission of that history.

They ask, "What about young people? If a person with limited ability can be a relative success despite having used drugs, what message does that send to young people?"

Well, maybe I'd be more than a relative success had I stayed straight. Maybe if I hadn't smoked pot, I would have been president.

Oops. Now we have the president acknowledging that he smoked pot. In personal conversations secretly recorded by a good friend - say that phrase aloud a couple of times - George W. Bush said he wasn't going to answer reporters' questions about marijuana use because he didn't want kids to do what he did.

Fair enough. A guy's past belongs to him. He can handle it however he wants. Still, I wonder about our lack of candor about drugs.

As it turns out, just a week or so after his good friend released some of the transcripts of the secretly recorded personal conversations, the administration is releasing its "Drug Strategy" for 2005. Drug Czar John Walters told a reporter from Reuters that the president will propose spending $12.4 billion in the war against drugs this year. That's a 2.2 percent increase over last year's effort.

Actually, the $12.4 billion figure doesn't begin to cover the cost. If you throw states' spending in, the figure jumps to $50 billion. And that doesn't count the cost of incarceration. As of May of last year, we had almost 2.1 million inmates in state and federal prisons.

The largest growth is in federal prisons, and according to the Bureau of Prisons, 58 percent of federal prisoners are in for drug crimes.

There is no way of knowing how many people are in for nondrug crimes, but who committed those crimes because of drugs - the armed robber, for instance, who was robbing somebody to get money to buy drugs or the forger who cashed a check to get money for drugs.

As I have argued before, we would be better off financially if we treated the soft drugs like booze. Regulate and tax them. Give the other stuff away. If you want to be a junkie, be a junkie. We can't stop you, anyway. We've spent billions trying to do it.

We've gone after drug cartels in other countries - remember the hunt for Pablo Escobar? - and we have learned (or should have) that there is always a new cartel to replace the old cartel.

These cartels destabilize governments. Cartels that our war on drugs created! The same sort of thing happened in Prohibition. We created gangsters. Who's better for society, an Al Capone or an August Busch?

What's more, if we took a fraction of the money we spend on locking people up and spent it on education and treatment, we'd probably do more to curb drug use.

This is an issue we ought to at least be talking about. This would be the perfect time for such a discussion. A Democratic administration would have an awful time bringing this up. Soft on crime! No values! But a Republican administration could pull it off. It would make financial sense.

Then, too, there is the fairness issue. If drug addiction is a medical problem rather than a crime for Rush Limbaugh, it ought to be a medical problem for everybody. Besides, how can we send somebody to prison for something the president used to do?

As I said, his past is his past, but if we're ever going to get a handle on the drug issue, I think we'd be better served with a little more candor. At least, so says this sinner.

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