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Acting on drugs: enforcement

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THROUGHOUT the United States the scene is being relentlessly played out these days: Drug traffickers are offering a veritable supermarket of illicit products to their customers, ranging from ``crack'' (smokable cocaine), to sinsemilla (derived from marijuana), to black tar heroin, the most dangerous product of all. Older forms of illegal drugs are widely available. At the same time, other dealers are selling so-called ``designer drugs'' made in clandestine laboratories; these drugs are modified versions of legally controlled drugs. The recognition is growing that the nation's drug challenge -- although not new -- may be spiraling out of control as illegal drug products become cheaper and more readily available. Millions of Americans have experimented with cocaine.

Today's drug user is as likely to be found in a middle-class or upper-income suburb as in an inner-city ghetto. Part of the new challenge is technological: Refinements in drug processing, as well as a decentralization in criminal networks, have enabled dealers to sell products such as crack for as little as $5 to $10 a fix. Operating out of so-called safe houses, crack processing ``kitchens'' can be set up in almost any sheltered location and moved quickly to avoid the police.

Clearly, meeting the nation's drug challenge involves forging a broad range of responses, from antidrug education programs in schools, community groups, and churches to more-comprehensive law enforcement techniques.

In subsequent editorials we will deal with such issues as society's role in curbing drug abuse, as well as the part family and friends can play in helping people struggling with drug dependency. On the broader enforcement front, however, a number of steps are in order:

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