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`Zero tolerance': zero effect? Prosecutors see few results from crackdown on drug users

The nation's top prosecutors have indicted the war on drugs. Nearly two-thirds say they are having little or no effect on cutting supply or deterring use of illegal substances.

A confidential survey conducted by the National Law Journal garnered these responses from 181 chief prosecutors or their top narcotics deputies in all 50 states. The law enforcers say there is no current strategy that is working.

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Seventy-three percent of state and local prosecutors queried singled out the Reagan administration's policy of ``zero tolerance'' as having little importance as an enforcement tool.

The get-tough policy makes users of even small amounts of drugs as accountable as larger-scale drug dealers.

Last March the Justice Department began urging state and local prosecutors to adopt the policy of clamping down on users as well as traffickers to send a message that even the smallest amount of drugs would not be tolerated.

The initiative was modeled after a program run in southern California by United States Attorney Peter Nunez.

Under the program, boats, cars, and even motorcycles have been confiscated because people using them were found in possession of small amounts of drugs.

Deborah Burston-Wade, a Justice Department spokeswoman, says the zero-tolerance program ``is fairly new, and it is too early to say with finality that it will not work.''

She says the idea of a ``quick fix'' for a large-scale social problem that evolved over decades is unrealistic. ``This is just one step to deal with a multi-tentacled beast,'' she adds.

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Ms. Burston-Wade argues that over time the ``just-say-no program,'' coupled with strong enforcement measures like the death penalty for dealers, will stem the illegal drug flow.

But prosecutors are skeptical about strategies that emphasize enforcement.

``We just don't have the resources. We need more of everything,'' says Patricia Jessamy, a deputy state's attorney in Baltimore.

The prosecutors surveyed said overcrowded prisons, burgeoning caseloads, inadequate resources, and lenient sentencing are major impediments to making substantial inroads to solving the drug problem. The prosecutors said they need more enforcement money and mandatory sentencing to make a real dent.

The war cry from the top has been to go after the street-level dealers. At the time he announced the national initiative to prosecute drug users, former Attorney General Edwin Meese III said he wanted to make it clear that there is ``no such thing as recreational drug use.''

D.Allen Badger, deputy solicitor in Charleston, S.C., says her city is on the ``cocaine trail'' that traffickers use en route from Florida, a major entry point for the cocaine from Latin America.

Eighty-five percent of her cases involve cocaine. She believes that the long-term answer lies in deemphasizing criminal justice and emphasizing education. She says that once people become involved with the criminal justice system, it's often ``too late.''

Ms. Badger recalls telling the story of prosecuting a drug dealer to local school children.

``When I told them he got off, they cheered. That's an attitude problem.'' She asks, ``How do you deal with that? These guys are heroes to them. They give them candy, money. I mean they are not bad people in a sense - they're not running over people with their cars or beating up old ladies.''

She asserts that changing this kind of thinking will take the same kind of long-term commitment that was applied to the attack against cigarette smoking. She laments, ``It will take a long time.''

Twenty-five percent of the prosecutors surveyed favored decriminalization of marijuana. Badger doesn't agree, however. She says she is loath to send a message suggesting to young people that some drug use is not serious.

On this point she and Burston-Wade at the Justice Department agree.

``Those prosecutors [who favor decriminalization] are abdicating responsibility,'' Burston-Wade says. She adds that this is an attitude that no ``amount of federal dollars can do anything about.''

``We have become a value-neutral society, instead of just saying something is right or wrong,'' she says. ``Using drugs is wrong. Marijuana is not just an herb.''

The Justice Department supports programs such as ``Federal Day'' in New York, which targets street-level dealers. On an unannounced schedule, federal officers and local police arrest low-level dealers and prosecute them using stiffened penalties in federal statutes.

Mr. Meese believes that the ``deterrent value against users should be considerable, since many are less involved than dealers in criminal life styles.''

But 40 percent of the prosecutors surveyed say such ``clean sweeps,'' which target open-air drug markets, only force dealers to change their places of doing business.

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