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The Making of a Drug-Free America: Programs That Work.

The Making of a Drug-Free America: Programs That Work. Mathea Falco. Times, $22. Those Americans horrified by recent Serbian attempts at "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans would do well to contemplate the consequences of our own efforts to cleanse the nation of illicit pharmaceuticals. The federal government's war on drugs has more than doubled the nation's prison population to 1.1 million, giving the United States the world's highest rate of incarceration. It has also produced a social and demographic catastrophe in the inner city. A soon-to-be-released study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives found that in Duval County, Florida, which includes the city of Jacksonville, 78 percent of black men between the ages of 18 and 35 have spent time in prison or jail.

Perhaps draconian policies that result in the incarceration of a substantial portion of the African-American population might be justified if they could be shown to have actually accomplished something. In fact, as Falco reminds us, drug smuggling and drugrelated homicides are more prevalent than ever while hard-core abuse of cocaine and heroin remains undiminished from levels in 1989, when President Bush stated in his one specific inaugural pledge, "Take my word for it: This scourge will stop."

Falco proposes an alternative strategy that de-emphasizes law enforcement and interdiction and relies instead on education, treatment, and community-oriented programs that tap the resourcefulness and creativity of ordinary citizens living in drug-infested neighborhoods.

This is in large measure the "responsible" approach to the drug problem favored by newspaper editorial writers, most Democrats (including Bill Clinton), think tanks, and foundations-one of which, Carnegie, sponsored Falco's book. Within certain limits, this strategy is not without merit: As Falco demonstrates, forming community coalitions, organizing nightly citizen's patrols, and trying novel municipal approaches--such as using local housing codes to shut down crack houses--are more likely to make a dent in neighborhood drug markets and street dealing than indiscriminate police sweeps and stagedfor-the-media drug busts.

But Falco fails to subject some of her proposals to the same rigor with which she scrutinizes current policies. Certainly it would be socially desirable to offer treatment to any addict who wants it. Yet even the most "successful" rehabilitation programs have staggeringly high failure rates. After touting the benefits of so-called therapeutic communities such as Phoenix House (where young drug addicts spend up to two years in intensive, highly structured residential programs of psychological counseling and job training) Falco notes nearly parenthetically that "the drop-out rate is very high." Just how high? "Only one in four clients remain longer than three months, while fewer than one in six complete the one- to two-year course of treatment," she states. Consider the political fallout (not to mention the inevitable media exposes) were the government to pump billions of scarce federal dollars into programs where more than 80 percent of the "patients" wind up back on drugs.

Falco ultimately rejects legalization on the grounds that it would substantially increase the number of drugs users-a conclusion that most Americans accept without question. But ultimately, this earnest, wellmeaning tome suffers from the conceptual flaws inherent in its title. Is it realistic to keep talking about a "drugfree" America? At least 26 million Americans used illicit drugs last year, and media and government propaganda notwithstanding, most of them did relatively little damage to society or themselves. (It is rarely reported that, according to the official federal estimate, about 20 million of those drug users were consumers of manjuana, a substance that, whatever its long-term health effects, is generally viewed as less addictive and less dangerous than the more widely consumed legal drug alcohol;)

What is indisputably a serious societal problem is the trafficking in, and hard-core abuse of, cocaine and heroin. Yet today, most of this takes place among the inner-city poor, where the drug culture is an inevitable outgrowth of high unemployment, dilapidated public housing, schools that don't teach, and a welfare system that breaks up families and encourages indolence. Governmental policies aimed at producing a "drag-free" society pursue an illusory goal at best. They certainly won't work until these larger problems of the underclass are tackled with the same zeal and determination with which we currently enforce the drug laws.

--Michael Isikaff
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Author:Isikoff, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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