Al Gore on Drugs

The Clinton-Gore administration spends millions to fight illegal drugs, but does nothing about one of the most damaging substances in American society: alcohol. Perhaps the fact that Big Booze is generous at campaign time explains the contradiction.

| Tue Aug. 15, 2000 12:00 AM PDT

"If young people have emptiness in their lives, if they have a lack of respect for the larger community of which they're a part, if they don't find ways to feel connected to the adults who are in the community, if they feel there's phoniness and hypocrisy and corruption and immorality, then they are much more vulnerable to the drug dealers, to the peers who tempt them with messages that are part of a larger entity of evil." So spoke Al Gore in February 1999, denouncing illegal drug use by young people.

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Phoniness? Hypocrisy? Corruption? Immorality? Those four words nicely sum up the Clinton-Gore "anti-drug" policy.

First, one might ask why Gore spoke exclusively about illegal drugs. The stated No. 1 goal of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is to "Educate and enable America's youth to reject illegal drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco." While the White House, to its credit, is making a concerted effort to reduce youth smoking, it has said little about alcohol and done even less. Unlike Big Tobacco, Big Booze remains a bipartisan briber.

According to "Millennium Hangover," a report by Drug Strategies, a centrist nonprofit research institute, alcohol industry political action committees "gave $2.3 million to federal candidates during the 1997-1998 campaign cycle -- as much as contributions by the tobacco industry, and 21 percent more than the gun lobby ($1.9 million) ... Thirty out of 34 Senators elected in 1998 -- including 15 Republicans and 15 Democrats -- accepted contributions from alcohol PACs totaling more than $400,000."

So the administration's bipartisan-backed "anti-drug" advertising campaign excludes the mind-altering drug most likely to kill or hook the very teens the campaign ostensibly seeks to protect. Alcohol is a factor in more than 100,000 American deaths each year, compared to 10,000 to 16,0000 for all illicit drugs combined. Marijuana causes a tiny fraction of those deaths, and none of them from overdose. Pot can be and is abused, but alcohol boasts 12 million addicts, and can kill from overdose as well as from drinking and driving and other alcohol-related accidents. It tears families apart. It's a major factor in violent crime, including domestic abuse.

This would seem to call for a massive program that a) provides treatment on demand, b) encourages abstinence, and c) floods the media with sensible, science-based safe-drinking guidelines that can reduce the risk of developing an alcohol problem or addiction. It's not likely that Gore or his compassionate, recovered-problem-drinker rival will propose as much at the St. Louis presidential debate, sponsored as it is by Anheuser-Busch.

"Despite the cost of alcohol abuse to the nation, estimated at $167 billion annually, no comprehensive strategy has been developed to reduce this problem. Federal spending on alcohol problems does not begin to compare with expenditures for reducing illicit drug use," charges the Drug Strategies report. "Without Federal leadership -- concentrated, coordinated programs with well-defined goals and adequate funding -- the enormous cost of alcohol abuse in both human and economic terms will only increase."

It adds: "Voters have demanded action to stop illicit drug problems, but have not expressed similar concerns about alcohol. Most voters are not aware of the costs associated with alcohol abuse, and Congress does not hear from large numbers of constituents that alcohol abuse presents a pressing problem."

Young people try alcohol and other drugs for a host of reasons. Most of these kids aren't troubled; they are curious about what it's like to get high, and eager to engage in "adult" behavior.

Gore smoked pot as a young man. Were his college-chum "connections" agents of evil? Does he think his old Harvard toking pals applauded when half-a-million Americans were arrested for pot possession in 1996, and again in 1997 -- far more than in any year under Nixon or Reagan?

Last year, the vice president told a group of black columnists he favors reducing the draconian penalties for crack cocaine -- which have contributed substantially to the explosive growth of the black and Hispanic inmate population -- to the level for powder cocaine, the preferred coke of white high-rollers. But will Gore do more than whisper this to black columnists? Will he make it a "fundamental fairness" issue in his campaign?

By doing so -- or better yet, by advocating treatment rather than prison for nonviolent drug abusers; by dropping the silly "entity of evil" rhetoric and speaking sensibly about teen-age drug use; and by formulating an alcohol policy that puts the health of the American people ahead of the health of the alcohol industry -- Gore can demonstrate he is cutting himself off from the phony, hypocritical, corrupt, and immoral drug policies of the administration he serves.

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