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The curse of drugs has struck again. Robert Downey Jr., on break from
shooting television’s “Ally McBeal,” was arrested over the Thanksgiving
weekend and charged with possession of two dangerous drugs, cocaine and
methamphetamines (commonly known as “speed”). Downey, an Academy Award
nominee for best actor for his performance in the movie “Chaplin”
(1992), was also charged with committing a felony while on bail and now
faces more time in prison.

Downey, who has had a long history of drug abuse, including heroin
and cocaine, had been under the care of a California rehabilitation
center. Released only three months ago from prison where he was serving
time for drug-related offenses, he was required to undergo random drug
tests as part of his parole. But, as is the pattern with those like
Downey who are hooked on drugs, they seem to return over and over to
their addiction. Downey is scheduled to be arraigned on the new drug
charges sometime after Christmas.

But this talented young actor is merely one more casualty of the
so-called “war on drugs” we hear so much about — especially from
politicians around election time. Unfortunately, it’s a war we are
losing and one that is damaging the core foundations of our society.
Indeed, in 1999 alone, there were an estimated 1,532,200 arrests for
drug violations in the United States. Law enforcement officials,
however, admit drug supplies remain abundant in nearly every city –
including small towns.

It’s frightening to learn that dangerous drugs such as crack cocaine
continue to dominate this country’s illicit drug problem. There has also
been an increasing trend in heroin use since 1992. There are even
reports that suggest an increasing incidence of new heroin users –
called “snorters” — in the younger age groups, often among women.

So how are we, as a nation, handling the victims of our drug war? The
American legal system is locking them up in prison. The U.S. Department
of Prison Statistics indicates that, shockingly enough, over 60 percent
of all federal prisoners are drug offenders (while only 3 percent are
violent offenders).

This impacts heavily on young offenders who, if placed in prison, are
often mistreated. Some learn new forms of criminal behavior. In fact,
Downey’s stay in prison was such a harrowing experience that many of his
friends expressed surprise that he would even chance going back to
prison. In 1997, for instance, the actor was cut during a fistfight with
three other inmates. Afterwards, Downey was moved to solitary
confinement.

The drug war also greatly impacts minorities who make up about 50
percent of the prison population. Indeed, one out of three
African-American males in their 20s are either in prison, in probation
or on parole. In Washington, D.C., that ratio is even higher: one out of
two African-American males between the ages of 15 and 35 are in prison,
on probation or on parole — many of them have found their way into the
clutches of the criminal justice system through drug use or possession.
If the current trend continues, more African-American children will most
likely go to prison than to college when they grow up.

What, then, is the solution to the drug epidemic? The plain and
simple answer is that there are no easy answers. But it should be
obvious by now that incarcerating young people is not the solution. In
some respects, we’ve become prison happy in this country. Largely fueled
by drug arrests, America now imprisons a higher percentage of its
citizens than any other nation in the world.

However, one major hope for a solution can be found in the area of
prevention programs, which are designed to enhance “protective factors”
and rehabilitate, not incarcerate. Protective factors include strong and
positive bonds within social groups, primarily in the family, if
possible. Such programs should certainly include education for children
and adolescents.

Private organizations, such as community centers and churches, need
to place not only their time, but their money, into programs to keep
young people off the streets and away from drugs. These groups should
provide parents and caregivers with training on appropriate strategies
to reinforce what young people are learning about drugs and their
harmful effects. They should involve police and help law enforcement
agencies refocus their attention away from tactics that are obviously
not working and toward prevention and rehabilitation.

We can learn a lesson from California’s attempts to win the war on
drugs. For example, California recently passed a law that will go into
effect in July 2001 requiring probation and drug treatment, not
incarceration, for possession, use, transportation of narcotics and
similar parole violations (except for sale and manufacture). The law
also authorizes dismissal of charges after completion of treatment. This
law moves away from current programs that merely incarcerate and do not
rehabilitate.

One thing is certain: If we don’t rethink the narcotics problem, then
our country is on a self-destructive path that leads to nowhere, except
to a place where drugs will proliferate and the prison population will
continue to escalate.


Constitutional attorney and author

John W.
Whitehead
is founder and president of

The Rutherford Institute
and editor of

Gadfly magazine.

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