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The Reality of Drugs Belies a Cartoon-style Answer

Garry B. Trudeau, creator of the comic-strip Doonesbury, is one of your star Boomer celebrities, a self-appointed guru of perpetual ’60s cool. It was Trudeau who invented the jaunty Mr. Butts character that mocks the tobacco companies and the politicians who take their contributions. Today Mr. Butts figures haunt only Republican rallies, despite the annoying fact from the National Library on Money and Politics that more than half of the tobacco support of congressional candidates from 1980 to 1994 went to Democrats.

Real history, in contrast to cartoon history, has that way of interfering with a good story. In Mr. Trudeau’s case, this crusader against the legal vice of tobacco recently felt obliged to write an essay in Time magazine regarding his own past use of illegal narcotics. Were RJR Nabisco sleuths about to expose him? Regardless, his confession is not the mea culpa of a Newt Gingrich or even the denial of a Bill “I didn’t inhale” Clinton. Instead, Trudeau manages to say only briefly that he no longer advocates drugs, while telling us at length how much he once enjoyed them and even sold them. He implies that he only quit once he became a parent, not so many years ago. “To summarize,” he writes, “at one time I possessed, consumed and probably distributed marijuana–activities for which I may feel embarrassment but not guilt.”

These “memories of TOKING UP are fondly held,” he coos in capitals. “Finally, I admit that this has not caused me to lose a moment of sleep, except as it has pertained to my career.”

HowÌs that as a didactic tale for the kids? Tobacco’s bad for you, but dope’s a bit of a kick. Cartoonist, draw thyself!

The Clinton Administration also did not take drugs very seriously for over three years; indeed, until a political attack appeared on the horizon. Then the Administration, too, came up with the preposterous attempt to switch the subject to cigarettes.

In the first three years of the Clinton presidency, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders proposed looking into legalizing drugs and the Justice Department recommended reducing mandatory sentences for drug crimes. The President slashed the staff of his drug office by 80 percent and reduced interdiction of drugs at the border and eradication efforts overseas. Coast Guard seizures of cocaine fell 45 percent and marijuana, 90 percent. Supply reduction was deemed a waste of time and money.

When a report was produced for the Pentagon by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) suggesting the contrary–that interdiction is a “cost effective operational strategy for increasing cocaine prices and thereby reducing cocaine use in the United States”–the Administration held up dissemination. Only insistence by the Republican dominated House Government Reform and Oversight Committee brought the report to public awareness last week. The full contents still have not been released.

It apparently was the Administration’s expectation that increased funds for drug treatment would bring about demand reduction. Indeed, The Man From Hope told a group of Miami middle-schoolers last spring that drug use had gone down “every year for the last three years.”

But the hard facts showed the hope was false. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse for 1995 revealed that drug use among teens rocketed upward 105% since 1992. Cocaine use among teens soared 166%. Compared to the past, the drugs themselves have become cheap, “pure” and dangerous. This would tend to validate the IDA study. Greater drug supply produces lower prices and wider availability. Lessened drug education, meanwhile, lowers the threshold for initial usage. Drug treatment for addicts, a Clinton priority, is a valuable and humane service, but not much of an answer to expanded drug supply and usage.

The Administration tried to wriggle off the bad publicity–and escape the merciless Dole ad showing candidate Clinton in 1992 laughing on MTV that he wished he had inhaled–by pinning the problem on the Bush years. The numbers in that period, however, donÌt show anything more than anti-drug efforts and drug usage reaching a plateau. So another spin was tried, that Republicans in Congress are responsible because they have not supported all the treatment funds the president sought. But again, even if true, that argument begs the question.

That question is, what works? The best answer, so far, is an all-fronts struggle of the kind launched in the Reagan years, when drug use was cut in half.

Regardless of who is elected president, letÌs increase drug interdiction and drug eradication, overseas as well as at home. From my own service as U.S. representative to the U.N. narcotics agencies in Vienna in the ’80s, I would argue that we should solicit more international cooperation and financial support for these tasks. LetÌs also expand assistance for crop substitution in countries like Colombia, and thereby promote the domestic stability that gives politicians the courage to stand up to narco-traffickers.

LetÌs revise the once useful, but now stale, “Just Say No” educational campaign among youth. Yes, we also should continue to improve drug treatment for addicts and we should decriminalize medicinal use. And letÌs do more to rebut Hollywood and media figures who glamorize drugs, or, like Trudeau, laugh them off.

As for politicians (or cartoonists), nobody cares what they did as youths. What matters is whether they set an example as adults who have taken the drug issue seriously.