William Bennett, in a speech at Harvard, chided America’s intellectuals for criticizing the war on drugs without having done their homework. As is his custom, Dr. Bennett laid down some bad news that was as well-founded as it was unwelcome. Notable among the poorly informed agitators to whom he referred are the advocates of drug legalization. When asked about the likelihood that their proposal, if adopted, would lead to greatly increased drug use, they tend to shrug the question off as speculation about a consequence that cannot be predicted.

A review of pertinent history suggests otherwise. In his new book, Cocaine: The Great White Plague, Gabriel Nahas writes of the epidemic of opium addiction that devastated China after Britain won the Opium Wars and forced China to rescind its drug ban in 1858. By the end of the century it is estimated that ninety million of China’s three hundred million people were addicted.

In Spain, under the Franco regime, the laws imposed severe penalties for the possession of any amount of an illicit drug. That policy was extraordinarily effective, almost eliminating drug use among the Spanish population. The Socialist government, which came into power in 1982, did away with the stringent penalties and decriminalized the possession of drugs for personal use. In 1986 the Chicago Tribune decided to learn what happened as a result of the change. The Madrid police estimated that there were 100,000 heroin addicts in the nation, 30,000 of them in the capital city. Crime, they said, had also skyrocketed to 38,700 cases of “robbery with violence” in 1983, up from 3,700 cases seven years earlier. Moreover, according to the police, 75 percent of street crime was drug-related.

Nahas urges caution about legalization on other grounds, too, noting that the use of cannabis, cocaine, and heroin results in addiction much more frequently than the use of alcohol.

Two decades ago, the chief of staff of the largest psychiatric hospital in Europe told members of the U.S. Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse that his hospital no longer accepted heroin addicts as patients. The attraction of the drug was simply too strong for their professional services to overcome in most cases. With heroin, and cocaine, too, the desire to end the addiction, no matter how genuine and determined it is, is usually an insufficient force to produce a cure.

The most successful treatment programs for drug addiction involve residence in a community that is powerfully supportive of each individual and in which drug use is anathematized. Those are also the ingredients for the successful prevention of drug use—stigma and a community of shared ideals. Three years ago 60 Minutes presented the story of the transformation of the Cochran public housing development in St. Louis from a disaster area beset by crime, drugs, vandalism, disrepair, filth, and vermin into a well-kept, proud residential community free of drugs and crime. The change was brought about by Bertha Gilkey, who led the residents first in obtaining authority to manage the buildings and then in establishing firm standards of right behavior that were rigorously enforced. Drug users were not permitted to remain as residents. “We are not a housing project!” asserted Bertha Gilkey. “We are a neighborhood!”—a community bound together by standards and ideals.

The world view that dominates the intellectual community places tolerance as the highest virtue. To condemn some personal action or habit as wrong and intolerable does not sit well with-the opinion-makers who have labored to create a nonjudgmental culture. There are straws in the wind, however, that suggest the general populace is on Bertha Gilkey’s side of this issue. On Geraldo Rivera’s January 9 program, when a professional drug counselor said that America may need to “mobilize a militia against the tolerance of drug use,” the audience cheered.