The Des Moines Register, Wednesday, February 21, 1996, 9A

Iowa View/Karol Crosbie

Who will protect children from legalized drugs?

What are the chances that we can keep legal cocaine from fifth-graders?

The date is 2001. The place is a fifth-grade health-science class. The use of heroin, marijuana and cocaine is now legal for adults. The teacher begins her lesson:

"Today we will talk about what it feels like to be high on cocaine. If you sniff or smoke, or shoot, your whole body changes. Your heart beats faster. You feel hot - hotter than you've ever felt with your worst fever.

"But most important is how you feel inside your head. Your mind seems to work better. You can give a speech better, argue better, tell a joke better. Your thoughts come faster; you can remember more things; your memories are sharper. You don't feel discouraged like you usually do. You feel relaxed, and like you're floating above everything. You feel powerful - and you feel like talking about your power. You can do anything. You are sure you are the best, the smartest, the fastest.

"A lot of people can be high on cocaine without anyone else knowing. But sometimes the brain's chemistry is so mixed up that it plunges you into a kind of nightmare - called a cocaine psychosis. You are terrified. You believe your friends are going to hurt you. You hear voices. You feel things - roaches crawling on your face.

"A high will last about 30 minutes. When it is over you will remember it. You can't forget it. It was wonderful. You want it again. You are depressed until you have it again. It doesn't matter that the inside of your nose has open sores from sniffing. It doesn't matter that your best friend died from cocalne because her heart beat too fast and then just quit. You want the experience again.

"So you've got to say 'no' to this drug. Believe me. Just say 'no.'"

What are the chances that our imaginary students will say no? At this point we can replace fiction with facts. The facts are that kids are much more likely to say "yes" to legal drugs and "no" to illegal drugs. Our current legal drug - alcohol - will cause the intoxication of close to 40 percent of high-school seniors as often as every two weeks. Illegal drugs are used by 25 percent of seniors.

Despite problems with prohibition, the fact is that when alcohol was against the law, usage declined to a third or fourth of its former level. And it is no coincidence that incidence of cirrhosis of the liver fell by half. Laws and sanctions do have an effect on human behavior. In the decade before Prohibition went into effect in 1920, alcohol consumption in the United States averaged 2.6 gallons per person per year. It fell to O.173 gallons during the Prohibition decade, doubled to 1.5 gallons in the decade after repeal and is back to 2.6 gallons.

If cocaine were legal, how avallable and affordable would it be to a fifth-grader? A gram of cocaine sells for about $80 to $100. Its cost of pruduction is less than $3. What's the least the government could charge, including tax? The cost would have to be low enough to make bootlegging unprofitable. If not, we wouldn't have solved the crime problem, which is what brought us to legalization in the first place. Let's say the government sets the price at $20 per gram.

There are about 50 "hits" of cocaine in a gram, so at $20 per gram a school-child can get a hit for only 40 cents.

What are the chances that we can keep legal cocaine from fifth-graders? We need only look at our failure at keeping alcohol from children for an answer.

According to Dr. David I. McDonald, who was the drug-abuse policy advisor to former President Reagan, if legalization pushed the number of drug addicts to only half the number of today's alcoholics, 100,000 people every year will die. Dr. Robert DuPont, former director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, placed the estimate much higher. If one considers the debilitating effects of cocaine, the carcinogenic effects of marijuana and the AIDS potential of injecting legalized heroin, the number of deaths could go as high as 500,000 a year.

Is a society that requires seat belts, infant car seats and immunizations for children actually considering legalizing a drug that can kill our unborn, our children, our teens, our adults and our aged? I can think of no bigger gamble.

KAROL CROSBIE is communications coordinator at Children and Families of Iowa in Des Moines.