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Ahead for Drug War: New Czar, More Money, Debate on Strategy

THE nation's war on drugs is getting bigger. But is it getting better? That question is beginning to swirl again as confirmation hearings approach on a new federal drug czar and conflicting opinions emerge on whether the United States has turned the corner on the problem.

The Bush administration wants to pump more money into curbing drug abuse. That includes both law enforcement and drug treatment. But some in Congress argue there is still too much emphasis on reducing supply and not enough on curbing people's appetites - too much nightstick and too few beds for addicts.

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Across the land, those on the front lines have ideas, too.

Johanna Ferman helps run a substance-abuse program here in Washington, D.C. She says there is a need for long-term treatment and getting at the root causes of drug abuse in the inner city.

William Booth is just glad someone is still paying attention to it. ``We do have a shooting war going in the Middle East,'' says the Los Angeles Police Department commander. ``But we have to remember we have a shooting war going in the streets, too. I think the attention the president is paying to the narcotics war is evidence'' he knows that.

The president's attention comes in the form of a new national drug strategy that commits more to the war on drugs but doesn't push in any major new directions. At a time when many items in the budget are being cut or growing modestly, the administration is proposing an 11 percent increase for the drug war - proof, President Bush says, that he is still committed to curbing the problem.

For fiscal 1992, that would mean about a $1.2 billion increase over the current drug budget of $10.5 billion. Funds for domestic law enforcement would go up a hefty 14 percent, to $5.2 billion, while allotments for international interdiction efforts and those along the US-Mexican border would rise to $2.9 billion.

Treatment funds to rise

Drug treatment would get more attention, too - 10 percent more - bringing its budget to $1.7 billion. Prevention and education efforts would get $1.5 billion.

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The ratio between money earmarked for reducing drug supplies and that for prevention and treatment, though, would remain about the same (roughly 70 percent to 30 percent), and therein lies part of the rub. Democrats in Congress, and some outside drug experts, believe the beam should tilt toward reducing demand for narcotics.

``I think we need to reverse our priorities,'' says Mathea Falco, who was an assistant secretary of state for international narcotics in the Carter administration.

Others, such as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware, want to expand the overall federal role. Senator Biden has his own national drug plan - one that calls for spending $14.7 billion and would put more officers on the beat than the president would but would also put particular emphasis on treatment of hard-core drug users.

The debate comes at a propitious time. On Feb. 26 confirmation hearings will begin on the appointment of former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez (R) as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, replacing William Bennett, who resigned in November. There will be tussling over whether a shift in strategy is needed. At the same time, the pattern of drug use is changing. Everyone agrees that casual drug use is dropping. But there is a dispute over hard-core cocaine consumption. While the administration believes it, too, is declining, others argue the problem is as stubborn as ever.

Whatever the drop in drug use is, critics attribute it not to government policies, but to cyclical patterns in drug consumption and changing attitudes. Administration officials, though, believe their tactics have enhanced the downward trends. Hence the steady-as-she-goes strategy. ``Since the same is working, that's what we want to do more of,'' says Bruce Carnes, director of budget and administration for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The White House's new blueprint includes $100 million for expanded drug treatment, which has the potential of reaching 200,000 people. The program depends on matching money from states and localities, however. The federal funds would pay for 45,000 beds.

That's ``less than 10 percent of what would be needed in New York City alone,'' complains Ms. Falco.

Need for focus cited

Mr. Carnes counters that the federal government is already spending far more proportionally on treatment than are the states. He says Congress has turned down higher White House requests for treatment in the past.

Dr. Peter Reuter, a drug expert at the RAND Corporation, argues that more focus, not more money, is needed. He suggests less be spent on federal law enforcement and more on local policing and prevention and treatment.

Many analysts don't expect Mr. Martinez to move the fight in a new direction. He will, though, bring a different tone. Some worry that his low-key manner, in comparison to the feisty Bennett, will leave the drug war without a strong general.

But others think Martinez's quieter approach may be what's needed, and that, as a former governor and mayor, he will be more sensitive to local concerns. -30-{et

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