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The `Czar' Leaves the Field

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WILLIAM BENNETT was appointed head of the nation's Office of National Drug Control Strategy largely for his ability to use words as prods. He mounted the pulpit provided by the newly created office and succeeded, for a time, in heightening public awareness of the war against drugs. Mr. Bennett's National Drug Control Strategy, a 150-page document released a little over a year ago, credibly outlines an attack on drug use that embraces law enforcement, treatment, and foreign policy aspects of the ``war.'' The idea was a multi-front offensive with ``czar'' Bennett coordinating among numerous departments.

But it hasn't come off yet, and the drug chief was never given the authority and Cabinet-level status that might have made the job more feasible. Also, even someone with the rhetorical octane of Bennett couldn't keep the drug war on the front pages as other stories, not least the prospect of a shooting war in the Gulf, took priority.

As Bennett leaves the field, the war against drugs can claim some small victories. Cocaine use among middle-class Americans is said to be leveling off. The street price of cocaine is up, indicating that supplies are being reduced. There's some evidence drug use is becoming less socially acceptable among young people. On the other hand, the drug culture of inner cities, with its murderous violence, is ingrained as ever. Hard drug use among the poor may be increasing. Victory is still a long way off.

Treatment needs to be made more widely available in the areas most afflicted by drugs. Publicly funded treatment centers often have to turn people away. Education programs must be improved and maintained. Enforcement and interdiction - the fronts Bennett paid most attention to - have to be sustained, with care to avoid treading on civil liberties.

The new commander of the nation's drug war will need to take up the administrative tasks that Bennett, by his own admission, wasn't interested in. The task is to build ever more effective teamwork, not just proclaim the problem. With this in mind, perhaps the old ``czar'' label, with its implication of autocratic power, should depart with Bennett.


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