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Ethan A. Nadelmann's article in Foreign Affairs is based on a false premise and will not prevent drug use by our youth ("Commonsense Drug Policy," January/February 1998). His basic belief is that, in a free society, use of any and all psychoactive chemicals is a fundamental human right. This kind of radical individualism allows our judicial system no part whatsoever in shaping, determining, or enforcing drug use behavior. Such a policy would be tragic for the nation and produce an epidemic of drug use among our children. In short, Nadelmann's alternatives to current drug policy are not only drastic and simplistic but dangerous as well.
Nadelmann asserts that "U.S. drug policy has failed persistently" and "made matters worse, not better." He counsels us to "learn from the experiences of other countries." In fact, U.S. drug policy has resulted in extraordinary progress in reducing drug abuse and violent crime -- both in the absolute and in relation to any other country. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, there were ten million fewer regular users of illegal drugs in 1996 than in 1985. These declines occurred across all demographic and ethnic groups. Even more encouraging has been the progress in reducing cocaine use. There was a 70 percent decline in cocaine use -- four million fewer regular users -- from 1985 to 1996. According to the Justice Department, the dramatic decrease in cocaine use has been an important factor in the decline in violent crime since 1992.
This extraordinary progress, however, is now threatened. While the decline in drug use among adults is holding at or near ten-year lows, an upward trend has surfaced among young people that, unless reversed, portends another drug epidemic early in the next century. We must apply what we have learned to help young persons -- one at a time -- make the right decision about drugs. Drug-addicted adults start out as drug-using children. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 90 percent of current adult cocaine abusers started using drugs as teenagers; more than half started before their 16th birthday.
Two and a half decades of research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse has shown that the key to preventing drug use among our youth is to increase their understanding that drugs are harmful and socially unacceptable. We cannot accomplish that goal if we follow Nadelmann's advice to "acknowledge that drugs are here to stay" and to "learn to live with them." That kind of laissez-faire approach stands in direct contradiction to what works -- a consistent message against use from parents, schools, the media, law enforcement, and all of us in society who influence children. Two 1997 national surveys -- one by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, the other by Harvard University, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the University of Maryland -- have shown that drugs dominate the public's concern about children and children's concerns about their own lives. Waiting until drug users are addicts is not "commonsense drug policy."³
James E. Burke is Chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.