HARVARD DIARY
The Legalization of Drugs

September 1988By Robert Coles



In the late 1960s I worked with elementary school children and high school youths in a Boston ghetto. I talked with those young people in their homes, and also at school. I talked with their par­ents and teachers, too. I was doing a documentary kind of child psychiatry — trying to learn how ordi­nary lives unfolded in a particular neighborhood setting. I especially wanted to know what those boys and girls found to be important in life — their hopes, their beliefs, their values, their purposes, if any. As I did my work I couldn’t help noticing the widespread presence and use of drugs in that neigh­borhood. As is the case now in our cities, so it was back then — all too many younger children “run­ning” drugs for dealers, and all too many young men and women using one or another drug casually, if not compulsively.

Later, in the 1970s, I worked in well-do-do, mostly all-white neighborhoods — now talking with boys and girls whose parents had lots of money, and all sorts of diplomas to their credit. In those privileged towns I also encountered drugs — used by high schoolers, even junior high schoolers, with alarming nonchalance, and sometimes, I thought, a near suicidal intensity, frequency. In the ghetto, I noticed, many youths already hooked on drugs were ignored by the police or school authorities — as if the problem of drug abuse was already unsolvable in such neighborhoods. In the rather wealthy towns I noticed that most of the youngsters who used drugs also went about their ways secure from arraignment, let alone prosecution. The few who were fingered by the law — or by a teacher, a head­master — were quickly sent to doctors like me for “treatment.” By then I had concluded that the use of drugs had already become widespread enough to give pause to our police, our sheriffs and prosecu­tors, our school officials — make them try only for a circumspect and occasional enforcement of the law.

Now, a decade later, I read that we are in even worse shape with respect to the drug problem among our young people — so much so that a grow­ing number of political and cultural figures in this country, conservatives as well as liberals, seriously advocate one or another version of legalization, on the supposition that at least enormous criminal ex­cesses of various kinds will thereby be eliminated — drug distribution as a major law-breaking industry, and the hundreds of thousands of thefts and assaults, if not murders, which individual drug-users commit in the course of their addictive lives. “We must be realistic,” I recently heard one law school professor say — and then his punch line: “Over­night we’ll be rid of drug wars, and the crime rate will drop significantly, because people won’t have to steal to maintain their habit.” I have heard, in this regard, serious scholars, medical and legal both, suggest that publicly supported clinics simply dis­pense drugs to those who claim a need for them — and presto no more mafia drug lords, and no more drug-hungry (and crazed) street robbers.


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