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The drug war is only a hallucination.

While Robert E. Burns recuperates from recent surgery, we are running an "REB classic." This column first appeared in June 1990. Sadly, the topic remains very timely.

FOR A WHILE IT WAS A SCENE THAT POPPED UP FREquently on the evening news. A number of law-enforcement people proudly surrounding a table on which lay packages of illegal drugs, some drug paraphernalia, a few weapons, and usually a proliferation of cash, the latest fruits of the "drug war."

But the American public's attention span being what it is, drug raids--unless it's the spectacular variety with the narcs in coveralls breaking down doors--don't make the evening news as often these days. Even so, the war presumably continues. When it began, those in charge said it could take 10, 15, or 20 years to turn the tide against drugs. Now they claim to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Of course, every schoolchild who watches Saturday morning cartoons knows that such a light might be the front of a giant locomotive coming our way. But our fearless leaders in both the White House and the Congress will have no truck with long-term solutions. Long term solutions can't be measured by opinion polls; and, after all, don't we derive our principles of governance by thrusting a moistened finger into the wind?

I call our drug war cynical because it is obviously not intended to solve the problem of illegal drug use with any seriousness. Consider for a moment: When the drug war began, the White House proposed funding it with something like $10 billion, whereupon our vigilant Congress one-upped the funding to something like $14 billion. Not long after, the need to bail out the crumbling savings-and-loan industry arose, and our we-ain't-got-no-money federal government, overnight, came up with cash and promissory notes totaling $200 billion. Now, $200 billion is 20 times $10 billion and, in view of these numbers, how can we be expected to take the present drug war seriously?

I am not maintaining that a problem as serious as the ravaging U.S. drug culture can be solved simply by "throwing money at it." But money, lots of it, is needed if we are to have treatment programs for the addicted who must often wait many months even to begin treatment. And money, lots of it, is needed for law enforcement on the local level, money that can't be raised by states and smaller governments whose tax bases are already stretched to the limit. To the treatment programs and state and local law-enforcement people, our federal drug war says blithely, "That's your problem."

Even more egregiously wrong is the laundering of money from drug sales by U.S. banks, some of them very prestigious. At a time when we are blabbering that we must give the death penalty to street-corner drug dealers who handle transactions of a few hundred or even thousands of dollars, respectable U.S. bankers who erase the trails of millions of drug-profit dollars escape with, at most, a scolding. In the face of such scandalous whitewashing, tell me that our national drug war is serious.

Several decades ago drugs began to attract national attention when they spread from the inner city to the affluent suburbs and urban high rises. And, with sadness, I predict that the drug war will all but end when drug use in the affluent enclaves diminishes. We have already been given the good news that hard-drug use has been decreasing among college students. The bad news is that it has become our national policy to write off an entire economic underclass. We are saying to the people in this group: "Don't bother us! Stay in your ghetto. We'll throw you a bone or two from time to time, but forget about hoping for a future in any way comparable to one that the rest of us look forward to."

It's time we looked our cold-blooded cynicism in the face. This is not a matter of"welfare queens," of such nonsense as food stamps being used to buy lobster and vodka. Face the fact that the United States has created the largest leper colony in the history of the world. In that leper colony live millions of hardworking, law-abiding, churchgoing women and men. In that leper colony live millions of innocent, fresh-faced children who, all too often, are condemned to a lingering death. In that leper colony, of course, are some evil people and more sick people who find booze, crack, and other drugs to be the sugar that makes the medicine of a hopeless future go down.

So when you hear that the United States is filling the skies with AWACS surveillance planes to intercept drug smugglers or when you hear about Colombian peasants being horrified when the Yanquis offer to supply them with worms that will chew up their coca cash crop, permit yourself a laugh or two, however bitter.

Tell me about your drug war, Mr. President; tell me about your drug war, Mr. Congressman and Ms. Congresswoman. I hope the whole cynical hoax bothers your consciences as much as it does mine.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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