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Archive for Tuesday, December 5, 2000

Drugs defy legal solutions

December 5, 2000

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Robert Downey Jr. is described in The Washington Post as "one of his generation's most brilliant actors" a ubiquitous cliche, along with "comic genius" and like many "brilliant" people, his intelligence has failed him in other realms of life.

Having been released in August after a year spent in a tough California prison for possession and use of drugs, he was arrested last week at a hotel in Palm Springs. An anonymous tipster telephoned police to check Downey's room for drugs and guns, and there the cops found cocaine, methamphetamines and no guns, but a manifestly zonked-out Downey. He was handcuffed, transported to jail, and bailed out the following morning. He faces a court hearing two days after Christmas, and because he is a repeat offender and parole violator, is likely to be returned to prison.

Hollywood being Hollywood, the predominant reaction to this story has been practical: Downey's career is in jeopardy, we are told, perhaps finished. It may well be. One of his generation's most brilliant actors is in the middle of a guest appearance on TV's "Ally McBeal," and was about to make a movie with Billy Crystal and Catherine Zeta-Jones. This is not the stuff of great art, to be sure, but it does suggest that Downey is capable of functioning in show business. The two remaining episodes of "Ally McBeal" are now being filmed, but if Downey is in prison next year, Catherine Zeta-Jones will have to find another leading man.

I should point out, for the record, that I once encountered Robert Downey Jr. at a political convention, and found him thoroughly distasteful. But it is impossible to take any guilty pleasure in observing his downward spiral. He is clearly sick, out of touch with reality and headed toward very hard times, or disaster.

This is not an unfamiliar story in Hollywood. I used to have a fascination with an early silent-film star named Wallace Reid, who died in 1923 after a long and well-publicized struggle with narcotics. Rummaging around in the Reid file at the Los Angeles Times (where I was employed at the time), I came across voluminous reporters' notes about the problems movie studios were having keeping dope dealers away from the actors and actresses. That was 80 years ago. Drugs have blighted many lives and careers in subsequent decades, and as Downey's case suggests, will continue to do so.

It is entirely possible, it is entirely likely, that nothing can be done about Downey's problem. In that sense, drug addiction resembles alcoholism: Some recover their lives, and others do not. Accordingly, it's hard to tell the difference between alcoholism and drug addiction except, of course, that the possession and consumption of booze is not unlawful. Yet drug addicts are not just treated the same way as criminal predators (Downey shared prison space with Charles Manson, among others) but in roughly comparable numbers as well. Between the state and federal prison systems, there are now over a half-million drug offenders incarcerated in America. Some of these, no doubt, are pushers and big-time dealers, but the vast majority are small-time consumers, or addicts like Downey.

The rationale for putting Charles Manson behind bars is evident enough, but who are we protecting from Robert Downey? The only victim of his behavior is Downey himself. Obviously, when people drive under the influence of alcohol, or are drunk and disorderly in public, they are breaking the law. By the same token, when an addict commits a crime to feed his habit, he needs to face sanctions. But there is no evidence that Downey robbed anyone except himself to acquire drugs, and his conduct in that Palm Springs hotel intruded on no one.

The solution is not to treat alcohol in the same way we approach drugs that was tried during 1919-33 but to ponder the lessons of the failure of Prohibition. For the past three decades, we have been waging a "war on drugs" in America, and after interdiction, K-12 propaganda in the schools, the expenditure of tens of billions of federal dollars, and a doubling and tripling of national prison space, what have we to show for it? The problem is not just persistent, but probably permanent.

There are no simple, comprehensive solutions, and spending more money isn't the answer. Treatment works for some addicts, but not all: Robert Downey, for example, seems to defy all attempts to be cured. But just as we live with the fact that Americans consume alcohol in varying degrees from ladies sipping sherry to derelicts in the gutter it seems reasonable to suppose that drugs might be comparably tolerated. On the whole, people would be better off if they didn't drink or take drugs. But people, as it turns out, are only human beings; and tossing them into prison for their appetites is futile.

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