Drugs policy:  The enemy within

	A quiet revolt has been taking place in courtrooms across America.   
It has been led by judges disillusioned with the country's war on drugs.
	On April 29th Harold Greene, a prominent federal judge in  
Washington, ruled that important elements of the mandatory sentencing laws  
for drugs offenders were unconstitutional.  Less than two weeks earlier,  
two senior federal judges, Jack Weinstein, and Whitman Knapp, of New York,  
had announced that they would no longer preside over drugs cases.  In  
recent months, a number of federal judges have taken such a stance.  It  
might be a sign, much further down the road, of a change in policy.
	Lee Brown, the former New York police chief who was appointed as  
"drug tsar" by Bill Clinton on April 28th, is thought to be a good  
appointment.  Apart from that, Mr Clinton has not done much with drugs  
policy.  Granted, he has been in office a short while, and has had much to  
occupy him.  But his drug-policy staff has been cut, and the budget  
request he has sent to Congress looks just like the one sent by George  
Bush.  He has asked for much the same amount of money, divided up in the  
same way: two-thirds of the money to criminal-enforcement efforts,  
one-third to treatment.
	Some had hoped for a change of emphasis.  Although the "war on  
drugs" was first promoted by Richard Nixon in 1972, it was not until  
George Bush's term that the war began in earnest.  Mr Bush appointed  
though-talking drug tsars and spent $40 billion to attack traffickers  
abroad and punish pushers and users at home.  The result has been  
disappointing.  cocaine is available about as freely and cheaply today as  
in 1989.  Drug-related violence in the cities is still high.
	The most praiseworthy part of the Bush policy was a drop in  
overall cocaine-taking.  But hard-core addicts, who account for  
four-fifths of all consumption, are taking as much as ever.  Mark Kleiman,  
of Harvard University, argues that Mr Bush's policies, put in place soon  
after the peak in cocaine's popularity, did little to affect a decline  
already under way.  Changing fashion (including the recent surge in  
heroin-taking) probably deserves the credit for that.
	If casual consumption of cocaine is down, it may well be the  
result of education and treatment programmes rather than criminal  
enforcement.  But enforcement has been, and remains, the core of American  
policy.  Presidents, naturally, do not want to be seen to condone the  
taking of drugs; the public temper is for stiff penalties and the locking  
up of offenders, not tender care.  But the effect of the policy, as the  
American Bar Association pointed out in a recent report, is that the  
country's prisons are filled not only with drug-handlers but also with  
drug-takers, and cannot cope with the numbers.  Neal Sonnett, the head of  
the ABA's criminal-justice section, notes with particular alarm the sharp  
rise in incarceration of low-level drug offenders, which has hindered  
efforts to fight more serious, and violent, crime.  He thinks the  
criminal-justice system may be "on the point of collapse".
	If it is, it will be for reasons to do with overall levels of  
sentencing for many sorts of crimes, not merely those related to drugs.   
But such arguments livened up a drugs meeting held in Washington on May  
7th to rethink America's policies.  At the start of the day Janet Reno,  
the attorney-general, admitted dissatisfaction with the present emphasis  
on enforcement efforts, and suggested the mandatory sentencing guidelines  
might be reviewed.  The speech confirmed hints from Mr. Clinton that,  
despite his status-quo budget, he plants to cut back on enforcement  
efforts, especially overseas, in favour of trying to reduce demand at  
	Another significant aspect of the meeting was the openness of  
debate.  Prohibition was not unquestioningly supported.  Ethan Nadelmann,  
a drugs expert who heads the Princeton Working Group, which is developing  
alternative ideas to prohibition, notes that legalisation of drugs was  
given a serious hearing.  The way forward, he believes, is towards "harm  
reduction".  Such efforts, like the one supported by Kurt Schmoke, the  
mayor of Baltimore, build on programmes from parts of Europe and Australia  
which treat drug-taking not as a criminal matter, but more as an issue of  
personal choice and public health.
	A small chorus has applauded such a shift in resources, arguing  
that prohibition of drugs will always fail so long as Americans remain so  
determined to get hold of them.  Mr. Clinton, who got himself in plenty of  
trouble during the campaign for not inhaling marijuana, is unlikely to go  
that far.