It alters perceptions and skews the ability to tell right from wrong. Ultimately, it results in a dysfunctional society. But it's not a drug. It's the War on Drugs.

The nation ringing in the Clinton administration is, by several measures, a healthier and more health-conscious nation than it was when Ronald Reagan took office. Americans exercise more, eat less fat, drink less alcohol, and smoke less tobacco than they did a dozen years ago. Public awareness campaigns, strong leadership from the Surgeon General's office, and laudable efforts at enlightening schoolchildren have, for the nation as a whole, significantly reduced demand for cigarettes, booze, and fatty foods.

Cocaine and marijuana, though, are different. So gravely did the Reagan and Bush administrations view these public health problems that they fought them not with persuasion, but with what they called a "war." This War on Drugs has seen the federal drug budget increased ninefold; it was almost $13 billion last year, or about twice the current funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. State and local governments' commitment was at least as great; the pro-legalization Drug Policy Foundation estimates the nation as a whole spent $100 billion on the drug war during the Bush administration alone. George Bush devoted his first televised presidential address entirely to cocaine, calling it the nation's "most serious problem." And his first drug czar, William Bennett, created a network of high-level drug officials in the Interior, Education, Defense and other departments to give drug policy top priority; the highest-placed single-issue office at the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, is the special counsel to the Secretary for drug abuse policy. No other health or human-service issue -- not AIDS, alcoholism, hunger, or poverty -- rates a Secretary-level special counsel.

To be sure, illegal drugs have helped wreck a lot of lives during the past dozen years, and each sad story of addiction or death -- whether passed by word of mouth or reported on the ten o'clock news -- is more heartbreaking than the last. But beyond the anecdotes, the public-health effects of the pharmacologic substances themselves pale beside other threats accepted more calmly, such as car wrecks, handguns, and homelessness -- none of which have been addressed by a "war." Fifteen people die from the direct effects of alcohol, and 60 from tobacco, for every person who dies from cocaine poisoning, according to the Public Health Service (PHS), and no deaths from marijuana have ever been reported. Cocaine can damage lives without killing, of course. But violent and dramatic headlines notwithstanding, the drug touches relatively few lives. Six million Americans used cocaine in 1990, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO), but fewer than 350,000 used it daily. A big number, but not compared to, say, the five million children under twelve who go hungry at some point each month, according to the Food Research and Action Council in Washington, DC. Even assuming every daily cocaine user has a "problem," an affliction suffered by less than one fifth of one percent of the nation's population seems a poor candidate for the country's "most serious problem." While one can argue that 350,000 daily cocaine users is a tragedy that merits attention, $100 billion over four years, or $286,000 per user, makes the Pentagon's thousand-dollar toilet seats seem a bargain.

Illegal drug abuse cost the nation more than $44 billion in 1985, the PHS reported in a big 1990 study of the economic costs of drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. But take a closer look at the figures: three quarters of that $44 billion was related to crime surrounding the illegal drug trade rather than direct effects of the drugs themselves.

"On the grounds of the health costs, it could scarcely be claimed that use of illicit psychoactives constitutes a social problem of the first order," writes Peter Reuter, co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center of the RAND Corp. A hardly a bastion of counterculture thought.

Still, the nation's strategy in the War on Drugs has been to spend twice as much on law enforcement as on treatment and education. By handing responsibility for this public health problem to the Attorney General instead of the Surgeon General, the country has doubled its prison population since 1980. The number of federal prison inmates doing time for drugs is now bigger than the entire federal prison population was when Jimmy Carter left office. The story is similar on the state level; in California, to choose one example, one of every five state employees now works for the department of corrections. No country has as big a portion of its people behind bars as does the United States.

George Bush's annual National Drug Control Strategy, the written conscience of the War on Drugs, justified the emphasis on enforcement by focusing all blame for drug use on the individual, explicitly rejecting any notion that drugs are a symptom of economic, social, and political distress. "To explain the drug problem by pointing to social conditions is to 'victimize' drug users and deprive them of personal autonomy -- the freedom and will not to use drugs," the 1992 Strategy document states. "The drug problem reflects bad decisions by individuals with free wills." Adds John Walters, the outgoing deputy director for supply reduction in the Office of National Drug Control Policy: "Poverty doesn't cause drugs; drugs cause poverty."

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