SHOULD drugs be legalized? In the wake of the State Department report earlier this month showing soaring levels of global drug production and abuse, the arguments for legalization seem seductive. Look what would happen, proponents say, if the price of a packet of white stuff fell from a few thousand dollars to a few cents. In one swoop, they claim, you would gut the gangsters' budgets, encourage addicts to seek help openly, and clean up street crime. Isn't that the answer?
No, says Boston University's Edwin Delattre. Legalization, says the quiet-spoken philosopher and former president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., is ``not only implausible - it's downright foolish, it's dangerous, and I hasten to add, I think it's immoral.''
Prof. Delattre, who consults with the FBI and police departments when he's not teaching ethics, knows whereof he speaks. For years he's been riding with police officers on their inner-city beats. Out of that experience has come his latest book, ``Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing.'' Out of it, too, comes his conviction about the perils of legalization.
First, he notes, even proponents of legalization admit that ``if you legalize, consumption and therefore addiction will rise substantially.'' That's been the case with alcohol, he observes, which now claims 23,000 lives on American highways each year. That's been the experience in Italy, where legalization of drugs has produced ``an enormous addict population and a very high AIDS rate.'' And that's what happened in the United States when, from 1912 to 1925, heroin clinics were legalized. In those years, he notes, ``levels of corruption were so high and the distribution of the drug [to new users] so great that it made the heroin problem worse, not better.''
Second, there is no evidence that legalization destroys black markets or the crimes that go with those markets. Case in point: gambling. Since it was legalized in Atlantic City in 1977, says Delattre, ``every category of indexed crime [in that city] has increased by over 400 percent. Six of the last seven mayors have been indicted, and the public service agencies are among the most corrupt in the country.''
Why should that be? Because, he reasons, legalization involves a tremendous regulatory network. And there are always profits to be made by breaking regulations. Drug dealers won't stop dealing. They'll simply shift gears - underselling the government, targeting people who can't legally buy, or offering more attractive conditions to addicts.
Third, the idea that legalization will sweep all current addicts into treatment clinics is naive. Many won't go. Some will go only sporadically. Others will find that the research has not yet produced the so-called ``maintenance drugs'' that can help them. After all, yesterday's somewhat-treatable cocaine and heroin have already been joined by crack and ice, which are much more difficult to treat. ``Given that the drug traffickers could introduce a new free-base drug into the marketplace every year,'' says Delattre, ``how the research would keep up with them is beyond imagination.''
What most concerns him, however, is the essential immorality of the quick-fix legalize-now mentality. Legalization, he says, would ``undermine the efforts of parents, corporations, and schools, to show that drugs are not wrong because they are illegal - they are illegal because they are wrong.'' That message, he feels, has recently been getting through. But ``if you legalize stuff that's as lethal as this, what else will you legalize? It seems to me that you have declared there are no limits to the tolerable.''
In the end, that's the point: that there are limits to the tolerable. A society in despair may wish to redefine its way out of its problems. Simply declaring that wrong is right, however, is no way to address the situation. Hats off to Delattre for bringing the clear insights of philosophy to bear on that point.