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FRUSTRATED, EMPATHETIC JUDGE COMES TO FAVOR LEGALIZATION
HE SAYS DRUG LAWS ARE MORALLY, PRAGMATICALLY BANKRUPT

SHARE FRUSTRATED, EMPATHETIC JUDGE COMES TO FAVOR LEGALIZATION
HE SAYS DRUG LAWS ARE MORALLY, PRAGMATICALLY BANKRUPT

In June, a man convicted of selling nearly a half kilogram of crack went before U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet. He spoke of his family and his wish to lead a productive life, and he pleaded for mercy.

Sweet, who this month became the first federal judge to publicly advocate drug legalization, reluctantly sentenced the defendant to 20 years in prison. Bound by federal sentencing guidelines, his frustration was evident."I know of no basis upon which I could accede to your plea, though I think it is entirely reasonable, and I regret that intensely," he said.

"It is a mechanical task. I am a clerk," the judge complained.

His frustration festered, along with the perception that the judicial system was being overburdened by "a social phenomenon."

And so, in a speech Dec. 12, Sweet declared the war on drugs was "bankrupt." The lifelong Republican and former federal prosecutor suggested that drugs like marijuana, crack and heroin be legalized and treated like alcohol - taxed, regulated and made illegal for minors.

"I suggest it is time to abolish the prohibition - to cease treating indulgence in mind-alteration as a crime," Sweet said in his speech. "More money, more prisoners, more addicts - these numbers demonstrate to me our present prohibitive policy has failed, flatly and without serious question."

The reaction was instantaneous. The president's drug czar, William Bennett, condemned Sweet's remarks as "stupid" and "morally atrocious." Vice President Dan Quayle denounced him; Gov. Mario Cuomo said he considered legalization "a sellout."

But others came to his defense.

"I think he's a courageous man," said Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke. "All he's trying to do is get our country to admit the failure of current policy and to persuade national policy-makers to consider a more efficient alternative to controlling drug abuse and drug-related crime."

"Judge Sweet has learned a great deal and is everywhere honored as a wise man and experienced jurist. What he said needs thinking about," wrote conservative columnist William F. Buckley.

Both Schmoke and Buckley had previously supported legalization - Schmoke set off a firestorm in April 1988 when he suggested the idea to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Others who have broached the proposal range from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark to economist Milton Friedman to former Secretary of State George Shultz. Each has been targeted by critics.

"Sometimes at a reception or party I advance these views and people head for somebody else. They don't even want to talk to you . . . ," said Shultz, in an October speech to alumni of Stanford Business School. "No politician wants to say what I just said, not for a minute."

Sweet's remarks were especially provocative because of his 11 1/2 years on the federal bench. To lawyers and judges who know him, Sweet is a thoughtful, intelligent and fair judge whose opinion should not be easily dismissed.