The failure of the drug war so far has made hardly a nick in Americans' determination to wage it. In spite of admonitions from a few prominent voices across the political spectrum, opinion polls show large majorities of the public not only acutely concerned about drug use but clearly desirous of government doing more, more, more to solve the problem.
Washington is ever willing to oblige, even in the face of horrendous budget deficits. In his 1990 budget legacy, Ronald Reagan penciled in a 25 percent increase in drug spending. When George Bush, in his own fine-tuning of the budget for next year, said he would add only a teensy bit to Reagan's $5.14-billion figure, the New York Times headlined the report: "Money Bush Wants for Drug War Is Less Than Sought by Congress." Congress? Congress wants $6.5 billion.
Congress doesn't have the slightest idea how spending $6-odd billion next year can make any more difference than spending $3 billion did last year. And Congress is not alone. Bush promises—"take my word for it"—to end the drug scourge. William Bennett obviously thinks that he can accomplish something as drug czar.
But have you heard any new ideas from these guys? Of course not. Because they won't face a fundamental fact—that "the drug problem" in this country will not be solved until people's desires change. And that's something the government can't do very much about, nor should it try, in a free society.
Two summers ago I sat across the table from one of my brothers, a former longterm heroin addict who'd done time more than once for drug law violations and drug-driven crime. I tried to explain why I think drugs should be legal. It was a hard sell. At 36, he was finally getting his life together, and the keen awareness of what drugs can do to you was written all over his face.
It's all well and good to point out that there would be no particular drug-crime problem if drugs could be bought and sold in an open market where competition would drive down prices and the criminal element would have no reason to be involved. Most people who are appalled by the drug problem in this country don't find this argument compelling. They ought to care more that by criminalizing the use of certain drugs we are creating a good deal of the crime in inner cities. But they don't. What they really care about is the growing use of drugs, the spreading prevalence among kids, and the way drugs can sap body and soul. To legalize drugs, argued my brother and argue most Americans, would be to deny that these are problems.
They are problems, but that doesn't yet tell us whether government can or should solve them. Talking to me, my brother finally realized that no punishment the state had ever laid on him, nor treatment opportunity the state had ever offered him, had done a damned bit of good until he made up his mind to change.
The parts of the drug problem that are related to the drug culture could be resolved in short order by legalizing drugs. And the parts of the drug problem that most people at heart care about are not solvable by drug laws. The parts of the drug problem that are about people's values and the virtues of prudence and temperance are not addressed by the drug war. If people can be helped at all to be better people, it is by education.
That should be the focus of our society's antidrug efforts. There's plenty of reason to think that this could be done more effectively privately, by clubs, churches, magazines, celebrity ads, etc., etc., than by government. But that's another argument. In the meantime, if Congress is determined to spend, I suggest buying every American a ticket to the movie Bird. Getting people to watch and learn from the inexorable self-destruction of a musical genius has got to be more effective than forcing coca growing out of Peru and into Bolivia and all the other futilities of the drug war.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Hard Sell".