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June 27, 2004 - The Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)

Futile Drug War Drags On In State, Nation, World

By John Ed Pearce, Herald-Leader Contributing Columnist

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It has been a busy month on the drug front, as Kentucky, like the nation as a whole, continues to wage an apparently endless and largely unproductive war on drugs.

I refer to the shady kind you buy from furtive guys on the corner, not the prescription type for which a Minnesota congressman is devoting his entire salary to pay for buses to carry elderly constituents to Canada, where they can buy medicine at humane prices.

The trade in backstreet drugs, chiefly marijuana and cocaine, is doing nicely, thank you, despite the war on them.

Here in Kentucky, one of the finest state police forces in the country spends its energies in a slash-and-burn battle against marijuana, regularly reporting gratifying harvests of the wicked plant. It appears to be our War of the Week, as unending as our wars against crime and the Iraqis but, mercifully, less expensive.

The results, however, are less impressive than they might appear. You may have noticed that an extra judge has been dispatched to Lee and Owsley counties to help Circuit Judge William Trude Jr. handle an overload of cases, a majority of which concern trials of culprits found using drugs. According to reports, some citizens are unhappy with Trude's failure to levy heavy fines and impose heavy sentences on drug users, and welcome the arrival of Judge William J. Wehr, reputedly more of the hanging-judge variety.

Trude has explained that he sees no benefit in throwing minor drug users into prison ( at a yearly cost to the taxpayers of $24,000 each ) when they can be put on probation, where they could work and seek help in overcoming their addictions.

This obviously common-sense approach evidently offends many of the moral guardians of Lee and Owsley who, like many other Americans, want to see the dirty users separated forever from decent, law-abiding citizens.

It is an attitude that has long fueled our war on drugs. It is a war that constantly produces victories without victory. In recent days, police have seized 300 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $2.5 million Pike and Letcher counties alone. The raid will also net a dozen or so miscreants who will soon clog the courts and jails of the region, again at the taxpayers' expense.

This is, of course, small beer when compared to the successful campaigns waged by the Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency troops. For instance, they seized cocaine from Ecuador valued at $25 million this month. Similar hauls have been reported in Miami and in the Caribbean islands.

All to little or no effect. Columbia is still torn by battles between rebels competing for control of the country's drug traffic, which threatens to spread into regions bordering Bolivia and Peru when pressure gets too hot at home.

In Afghanistan, the poppy crop, from which opium is processed, is said to be the best in years. The Taliban suppressed much poppy cultivation by the simple technique of killing farmers found engaged in the lucrative practice. But the regional warlords -- over whom the central government, if it can be so called, has little power -- permit and control it as a form of revenue.

And so it goes. Despite intermittent government efforts, the drug trade flourishes in Central and South America, the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, Turkey and Afghanistan and, yes, even in Kentucky. And all of this unlawful harvest is headed for Americans and Europeans, among whom demand is apparently insatiable.

The inescapable fact is that as long as there are buyers, there will be sellers. The impoverished farmers of Columbia and Afghanistan have resisted and will continue to resist local police and American helicopters as long as their crop relieves the poverty afforded by their wretched hillside plots, nor are they likely to be deterred by the sorry fate of users moldering in American prisons.

Neither, it seems, will the American public be moved by the disturbing cost. And that cost is far greater than the $19 billion disbursed by the federal government. That amount does not include the cost to cities and states, including the time and effort expended by police in hunting down users, by courts in trying them, by jails and prisons in housing them. Nor can the cost in human lives be estimated.

Profit is profit. Capitalism triumphs. And the drug trade will continue.

The only solution is to reduce demand through rehabilitation and treatment. This will require a change in popular attitudes from reliance on tough tactics and hanging judges.

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