Pubdate: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 Date: 07/26/1999 Source: Legal Times Author: Henry Cohen To the editor: Stuart Taylor Jr.'s "Casualties of the Drug War" "Points of View, " July 19, 1999, Page 18 , makes an eloquent case for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. He fails to notice, however, that his excellent arguments also make the case for ending drug prohibition. If it is wrong to impose on someone a mandatory 10-year sentence for a nonviolent, victimless crime, then it is proportionately wrong to impose a lesser non-mandatory sentence. The vast majority of murders and other felonies in the United States are caused by the drug laws, not by drugs. Ending drug prohibition would cause the price of drugs to plummet, eliminating the need for addicts to commit crimes to pay for them, and eliminating the black market that leads to innocent bystanders getting shot in the inner city, not to mention impure drugs and needles being shared. As it seems that people who want drugs can get them, and will continue to be able to get them no matter how much money we waste on the drug war, it seems unlikely that making drugs freely available would significantly increase the number of addicts. If we truly wanted to reduce the number of drug addicts, we would use the money we waste on the drug war to reduce class sizes in the public schools. If ending drug prohibition did increase the number of addicts, at least the people who choose to use drugs would be hurting only themselves, and would not, in order to support their habits, have to make the rest of us crime victims. And it would be preferable for addicts to hurt themselves than to have the government ruin their lives--usually more thoroughly than drugs do-- through drug prohibition. Many addicts, with a regular supply of drugs, regulated by the government for purity, and with clean needles, could function in society, holding down jobs and paying taxes, and not spreading AIDS. With drug prohibition, however, we spend about $30,000 per year to keep an addict in prison, where addicts learn to become real criminals. We burden them with criminal records, which helps make them unemployable when they are released, which, in turn, gives them an incentive to put their new criminal skills to use until we lock them up again. There is another reason to end drug prohibition. If we have a constitutional right to use condoms and to have abortions, then surely we have a constitutional right to ingest whatever plants we wish. There is no intellectually honest way not to apply Griswold v. Connecticut and its progeny to encompass the right to use drugs. If the government has the power to lock us up for using drugs of which it disapproves, then it has the power to lock us up for any bad habit or dangerous activity. It would have the power to regiment virtually every moment of our personal lives, directing us, upon threat of imprisonment, not to smoke or drink, not to skip breakfast (and what to eat), when to carry an umbrella or wear a scarf, not to ski or fly small planes, or anything else it deemed bad for us (except matters protected by the First Amendment). Why do we tolerate such an intrusion in the area of drugs that we would not tolerate with respect to other bad habits? The answer is simply that the victims of drug prohibition are predominantly black. It is not conscious racism at work, but rather a failure to recognize that inner-city drug addicts are human beings and deserve respect as such, and that many of us who did not grow up in the inner city would have become addicts if we had. In the end, drug prohibition is the product of arrogance. HENRY COHEN Baltimore, Md.