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Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2000 / 12 Kislev, 5761

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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A salvo in the war on the war on drugs -- MICHAEL LEVINE worked as a federal narcotics officer for 35 years. He worked undercover in a Brazilian drug cartel. His brother, David, was a junkie who killed himself after 19 years of addiction to heroin. David's suicide note explained, "I am sorry. ... I can't stand the drugs any longer." His son, a New York City cop, was murdered by a drug addict who was out on parole for two previous homicides.

Levine could be the last man you would expect to contribute to a book critical of America's war on drugs. Yet, he wrote a chapter for "After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century," published by the Libertarian Cato Institute and edited by Cato analyst Timothy Lynch.

Other contributors to the book include New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary E. Johnson and Julie Stewart, whose brother Jeff was arrested in 1990 for growing marijuana. As Stewart writes, "Jeff's accomplices ... who both had prior felony convictions ... informed on her brother. They got probation; Jeff got a five-year federal sentence. An outraged Julie Stewart formed Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which opposes draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences in favor of judicial discretion."

Contributors have conflicting views on revamping the drug war. Johnson favors not just decriminalizing all drugs, but legalizing and regulating them. A teetotaler who stays away from drugs, tobacco and candy bars, Johnson is anti-drug. But he believes that "by legalizing drugs, we can control them, regulate them and tax them."

Johnson writes, "Under a legalized scenario, we would see the level of drug use remain the same or decline. And the same would happen with respect to drug abuse." He's wrong. Take away the legal stigma and more people will use drugs.

Still, the governor makes a strong point when he compares the annual death toll related to alcohol -- 150,000 deaths - and tobacco -- 450,000 deaths --to the death tolls of marijuana -- few, but uncounted -- and drugs such as cocaine -- fewer than 3,000 deaths. Levine rejects the Johnson model, except apparently for marijuana and similar drugs. "Certain soft drugs may be legalized with no downside worse than alcohol, but I am convinced that the hard stuff like crack, coke, heroin, angel dust, methamphetamine, LSD, ecstasy and dozens of others simply cannot be legalized in a sane society."

Levine recommends changing the focus of law enforcement from going after dealers to going after users. "If the history of the drug war has shown us anything, it is that no matter how draconian the law, drug dealers are not impressed," Levine writes.

Better to target the casual user. Teachers, lawyers and salesmen were terrified when they were busted in a pilot program. Levine doesn't want to lock them up in prison; he suggests mandatory treatment. Going after casual users, he argues, really dries up demand.

But federal drug biggies aren't buying. They like the system as it is, even if it doesn't work. The book's goal is to drum some sense into Washington, especially on the right. Capitol Hill's current approach is all rhetoric -- Lynch lampoons a proposed bill called "The Drug-Free Century Act" -- and no victory.

The last time D.C. Repubs tried "to do something thoughtful on crime issues," Stewart noted, the Dems "slammed" them. Stewart hopes that Republicans -- in the "Only Nixon Can Go to China" mode -- will reach out to Democrats to reduce sentences that can put small-time drug operators behind bars longer than murderers.

In the long run, Washington should be looking at what works and what doesn't. In the meantime, more sensible sentencing laws and prosecutorial practices would go a long way.

Comment JWR contributor Debra J. Saunders's column by clicking here.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate