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Legalizing Drugs Would Sidestep the Moral Issue

PERSPECTIVES

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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.''

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