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Back on the Drug Front

AFTER years of headlines about the size of America's illegal drug problem, it's hard to be startled by fresh revelations. But recent reports of the spread of crack cocaine from depressed big-city neighborhoods into smaller communities, as well as news of the record-breaking cocaine seizures in suburban Los Angeles and Texas, made us take notice again. It's clear that the appeal of drugs like crack or the new smokable form of methamphetamine called ``ice'' leaps social and economic boundaries. It's clear, too, that the cost of drug use is broader than the devastation of already-blighted urban ghettos, huge as that cost is. Productivity is being undercut and families are being shattered in the heart of middle America.

Enterprising dealers from the drug terminals of Miami, New York, and Los Angeles have fanned out, exploiting new markets for crack anywhere the demand exists and people are willing to pay. Along with their vials and bags of dope, they bring their assault weapons and culture of violence. The huge seizures - 20 tons of cocaine in L.A., another 14 tons along the Texas-Mexican border - hint at the volume involved in this nationwide commerce.

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The implications from all this?

As we've argued before, the ``war on drugs'' has to be broadened beyond the crucial battle line of enforcement. Seizing tons of the stuff and busting into crack houses keep pressure on the purveyors of cocaine. But all too often a cleaned-up neighborhood or city is promptly restocked with drugs as a new set of dealers takes over. The moral vacuity that sucks well-heeled suburbanites - adults and youngsters - into the cocaine marketplace has to be addressed. Churches, community organizations, and motivated individuals, as well as public agencies, have work to do.

The people most directly involved in and victimized by the cocaine trade come largely from ethnic and immigrant populations mired in urban poverty. For youthful dealers, of course, the drug trade is an express ticket out of poverty. For many, it's also a ticket to violent death and prison.

The young people who become the cocaine chiefs' street armies have to be shown another direction in life. Education is inseparable from this effort - not just ``drug education'' but academic work that engages minds and begins to open unseen doors of opportunity. Better urban schools should become a centerpiece of both George Bush's education presidency and his drug war.

A danger in the battle against drugs is that constant publicity about the problem plus slow progress in solving it could equal cynicism. The recent giant drug busts showed again that law enforcement can make breakthroughs. Teachers reaching ghetto youth and individuals successfully kicking their habits are making equally important breakthroughs. The war has to go on at all levels - and it's far from lost.

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