The New York Times

October 29, 1989


By Flora Lewis


   The argument about legalizing drugs has become passionate, for good reason. There is a certain intellectual appeal to the logic that suppression provokes the enormity of crime, corruption and irresistible riches that make enforcement so ineffective and so costly. 


   But morally and emotionally, this approach is repugnant. It is not even as logical as claimed. Prohibition of alcohol is called the precedent that proved the point. True, Prohibition in the U.S. spread contempt for law among otherwise law-abiding citizens. It not only didn't work, it promoted the organization of gangs that were the foundation of crime syndicates still bedeviling the country.


     Now the import, production and sale of alcohol are legal, taxed and regulated. Drinking remains a social problem, especially on the roads, but it isn't a national plague. Then why not try the same way to make drugs manageable? 


   There are a lot of answers. Drugs are not alcohol. As a pre-World War II edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says, ''The use of the poppy and the coca leaf goes back to time immemorial.'' (So do wine and spirits.) ''However, its organized use for the purposes of commerce and revenue seems to have developed in the last 200 years, in spite of protests . . .'' 


   Commerce was the driving point. It brought the Opium War between Britain and China from 1839 to 1842. China was virtually a closed kingdom, but fortunes were to be made in trading its products. British ships loaded tea and silk, in return for cotton and opium brought from India. 


   Concerned at the effort to ''seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all the provinces,'' Emperor Lin Tse-hsu ordered confiscation of stocks of opium brought to Canton. Britain was outraged at this disruption of its trade. It bombarded Canton, seized Hong Kong and occupied Shanghai. British firepower was overwhelming. The Emperor opened new ports but continued to proclaim opium illegal until, with France as Britain's ally in 1857, China had to end all resistance to the drug. 


   Emperor Lin tried to make the moral argument. In a letter to Queen Victoria in 1839, quoted in Wm. Theodore de Bary's ''East Asian Civilizations,'' he wrote: ''Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?''


   It's impossible not to sympathize with him. We know the results of the ravaging opium traffic, which became the heroin traffic, overtaken by the cocaine traffic. Legalization did not contain or moderate the menace in China; it spurred and spread the drug trade. 


   Now the U.S. has proclaimed a ''war on drugs.'' Many sympathize, but the enemy is formidable. The New York Times's Joseph Treaster reports from Bogota that after six weeks of bombing and shooting in the capital, the drug barons' response to the Government's crackdown, many people are calling for surrender. 


   He quotes Senator Eduardo Carrillo Nates of the ruling party: ''Then the bombs would stop. The exportation of cocaine would not stop. But the country would be calm again.'' Though consumption is rising in their own country, Mr. Treaster writes, ''many Colombians still regard drug trafficking as mainly a problem for the U.S.'' 


   In the U.S., addiction to crack is reported to be growing sharply among middle and upper classes, not just a ghetto disease. You don't have to be black or poor to succumb. 


   It is mistaken to equate the infection with slavery, and the call for legalization to anti-abolitionism. Slavery was imposed on the defenseless with the sanction of law. Abolition meant turning the law against a sin and extending the fundamental rights of ''all men,'' as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to all Americans. Nonetheless, drugs are a form of self-imposed thralldom that the law should not countenance. 


   Legalization is urged in the name of efficiency and the cost of resistance, a confession of impotence in the face of human weakness. But it comes close to the 19th-century British argument for greed, the sanctity of commerce. Is it a coincidence that Milton Friedman, the classic free marketeer, is a major advocate? 


   Government cannot legislate human self-respect. But it must do more than assure the functioning of the market when society is so obviously endangered by its own worst temptations. China's terrible experience with opium is being magnified in modern, urban America. It offers a lesson. 


   The drug barons cannot bring overwhelming firepower to force their trade on a huge country and bring it to its knees, as happened to Emperor Lin. The really implacable enemy is our own lack of will and self-discipline.