Is the war on drugs succeeding?, continued

William Bennett '71, drug czar under President George H.W. Bush, and secretary of education under President Reagan, takes a very different approach to measuring the success of national drug policy. "You measure [success] by overall, current drug use," he argues. "Other good measures include city-by-city emergency room admission rates and [looking] to the culture--how is drug use depicted in the movies and in television?" By all of these yardsticks, he believes, the war on drugs declared by President Nixon more than 30 years ago is succeeding.

He points to a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which shows that in 1999, 14.8 million Americans were drug users, down from the 1979 peak of 25 million users.

As drug czar, Bennett was a vehement advocate of the punitive approach, and he continues to support it today. He is untroubled by the number of people in prison for drug offenses. "Most people are in prison for multiple offenses, including illegal drug use," he contends. "Some people plead down to a drug use conviction when a lot of other charges brought them to the prosecution in the first place. Very few people are in prison for drug use alone."

Nevertheless, even Bennett believes that, for some offenders, penalties besides prison should be explored: "[We should] consider revoking privileges and licenses--drivers' licenses, realty licenses--bar memberships and so on."

Asked about proposals for decriminalizing marijuana use, Bennett answers emphatically: "No. Marijuana is the most abused drug because it is the most used drug. More children are in treatment for marijuana than for all other drugs."

Somewhere between Nadelmann and Bennett is Joseph A. Califano Jr. '55, President Carter's secretary of health, education and welfare and currently the chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Like Bennett, Califano believes that decriminalization of drugs is a dangerous idea and that the criminal justice system must continue to handle drug users with a firm hand. But he has opposed some of the tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and says we can do much better in prevention through education.

Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Joseph A. Califano Jr. '55, chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University

Legalization or decriminalization, he believes, would make drugs more available to children, and overall use would increase.

"Marijuana is particularly harmful to children and young teens," Califano said in a written statement to the Bulletin. "It can impair short-term memory and ability to maintain attention span; it inhibits intellectual, social and emotional development, just when young people are learning in school. [There is] a powerful statistical correlation between using marijuana and use of other drugs such as heroin and cocaine." Twelve- to 17-year-0lds who smoke marijuana are 85 times more likely to use cocaine than those who do not, he says.

"Legalizing drugs not only is playing Russian roulette with children," Califano said. "It is slipping a couple of extra bullets into the chamber."

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