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Drug alert

Americans lulled into going along with the view that "pot" and "coke" are acceptable and largely harmless forms of recreation in 1980 may be in for a rude shock. All-too-routine news headlines over the past few days, in fact, ought to alert everyone to the distressing impact drug dependency in all its forms is having on many segments of society. In Tokyo, for instance, former Beatles star Paul McCartney is questioned in connection with a half pound of marijuana which narcotics agents say he brought into Japan. In Memphis, a respected doctor is found guilty of overprescribing "uppers" and "downers" and an assortment of other pills to another one-time rock idol, Elvis Presley. And in Boston, a prominent suburban physician and former state mental health commissioner is fined for failing to report drugs he prescribed to David Kennedy, son of the late Senator Robert Kennedy.

Testimony by researchers before a Senate judiciary subcommittee last week, however, offers encouraging evidence that at least some congressmen and drug experts are deciding such widely used drugs as marijuana need to be taken more seriously. Some former proponents of decriminalizing marijuana appear to be waking up to the dangers and destructive influence of so-called "head shops" with their drug paraphernalia and encouragement of drug abuse.

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In this testimony researchers and public health officials not only underscored the disturbing extent of marijuana use, particularly among teen-agers. They disclosed that far from being a "harmless giggle" (as one rock star called it) marijuana is a "major and serious public health hazard." Dr. Robert DuPont, president of the Institute of Behavior and Health and a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was one testifier who explained that the growth of marijuana use and new medical research had led him to reverse his previous position in support of dropping criminal penalties for the use of small amounts of marijuana.

Although marijuana smoking among high- school students leveled off last year, the number of youngsters reporting daily use of the drug nearly doubled between 1975 and 1978. Moreover, new statistics from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research indicate that cocaine use among high-school students is on the increase.

The potential health costs of such drug habits, of course, are only a small part of the problem. Organized crime feeds off the estimated $50 billion it receives annually from illicit narcotics. Law-enforcement officials in Florida, in particular, are struggling with limited success to contain the smuggling of vast amounts of cocaine and marijuana from Cuba and Colombia, trafficking which has led to street violence and killings between warring crime factions.

Federal law-enforcement officials have improved their coordination of enforcement efforts and are focusing primarily on apprehending the organizers and financers of the smuggling racket, rather than the users. But similar coordination in Congress in formulating a continuing and comprehensive narcotics policy would be helped by a proposal put forward by Senator DeConcini to create a Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. The House already has such a committee. But the Senate's oversight of the various aspects of narcotics abuse is spread out over at least five standing committees.

More federal money and manpower might help curtail the drug-related killings and other violent crimes that have prompted Florida officials to ask for more outside assistance. But greater public alertness to the potential dangers of drug abuse to society and individuals remains the foremost need.


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