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Originally published June 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 15, 2005 at 1:03 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Time for a new strategy in the war on drugs

"Is it Time to End the War on Drugs? " The King County Bar Association gave that title to a report in 2001, and now has put out a study...

"Is it Time to End the War on Drugs?" The King County Bar Association gave that title to a report in 2001, and now has put out a study that answers, yes. The study, "Effective Drug Control," argues that the use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs be considered health problems instead of crimes, and that government manage, inform and help people instead of putting them in prison.

Many will scoff at this liberal-Seattle idea, but there is realism in it. Making drugs illegal does not make them go away. You can get them. Kids can get them. Our government conducts "war" on the suppliers, but the supply is created by the demand.

The meaning of our law, says Roger Goodman, director of the bar association's Drug Policy Project, is that "we have chosen to buy our drugs from criminal gangs."

It's a dangerous form of distribution. In illegal markets, quality and purity are subject to error and trickery, which to the user of some drugs may be lethal. Business competition may also be lethal.

These deaths are an effect of prohibition, not of drugs. Jack Cole, the former cop who founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said: "When was the last time you heard of two Bud distributors shooting each other?"

Of course, users of drugs — or of beer — may commit crimes. Drug users ruin their marriages, neglect their kids, lose their jobs, lose their homes and dissipate their health. Others manage it.

Says the 2001 report: "Most youths pass through adolescence without experiencing any significant adverse consequences from drug use." Most of the soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam gave it up later. Bill Clinton smoked marijuana and was elected president.

The law brands all users as criminals. But suppose instead that users who committed crimes were arrested, those who asked for medical help were offered it, and the remaining adult users were harangued, as we do with cigarette smokers, but left to make their own choices.

Different drugs might require different regimes. Some might be produced only for state liquor stores, with advertising forbidden. Some might be available only by prescription. Marijuana might be made legal only if you didn't sell it, or advertise it, or if it didn't cross a state line.

The bar association lays out a spectrum of options between prohibition and a free market. Some are intrusive and all have social costs — but they should be compared with the costs of enforcement, trial, imprisonment and public labeling of the user as criminal.

Suppose the legal penalties ended. Would more people take drugs? Probably at first, because nobody would be going to jail for it. But would we become a society of addicts? Imagine your friends and ask how many would succumb.

Would kids get drugs? Some would, as some do now. But if distribution were aboveboard, the state could try to regulate it — and tax it — as it does with liquor. Which is hardest for kids to get, marijuana or liquor?

Would making drugs legal be a statement that they are good? Not necessarily. Most of us do not approve of cigarettes, pornography or membership in the Socialist Workers Party, yet they are not against the law. We do not ask, "What if everybody did it?" because we know everybody won't.

Seattle has virtually stopped arresting marijuana smokers. Ask yourself: Is everybody smoking it?

We might ask whether the imprisonment of more than 550,000 Americans is doing more harm than the drugs, and whether it is time to reclassify this as a medical problem.

Conservatives who balk at relabeling another behavioral question as a medical problem may want to use a moral term instead. Before the progressives of the early 20th century made the use of certain drugs (and alcohol) a crime, it had a moral label: It was considered a vice.

In the Sherlock Holmes era one might say, "He was a man with no vices," or, as with Conan Doyle's detective, that he had his vices but was not consumed by them. Dealing with one's vices was a matter of character and will. It might require medical help but was generally not a crime.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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