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Drugs: The Unforgotten War

THIS year has introduced a plethora of new words to the American vocabulary, such as ``smart bombs'' and ``budgetary shortfall.'' These euphemistic terms are associated with the Gulf war and the deficit. No one, however, has invented a way to soft-sell another national crisis - drugs. The United States is still in need of a realistic assessment of this problem and a commitment to an effective drug policy.

The Bush administration points to what it calls encouraging signs of winning the war on drugs. The National Household Survey for 1990 claimed that people consume less drugs. Casual cocaine use is decreasing for the first time, we are told. The National High School Senior Survey reported that more high-school graduates are refraining from drugs; a ``mere'' 47.9 percent have tried an illicit drug.

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These surveys do not tell the whole story. Prisoners and the homeless are not counted by the Household Survey. High-school dropouts do not appear in the Senior Survey's results. Even if drug consumption is decreasing in certain segments of the population, rates of use remain intolerably high.

The American people deserve to understand the scale of the crisis. Approximately 500,000 Americans use crack, and the number of people taking cocaine daily has increased from 292,000 in 1988 to 336,000 in 1990. Each week, 2.2 million to 2.4 million Americans use cocaine. About 600,000 heroin addicts live in the United States. Between 6 million and 6.5 million people who need drug treatment are unable to receive proper rehabilitative care. The crux of our drug crisis, therefore, is the hard-core drug abu ser, not the casual user.

This population of drug addicts, while concentrated in the urban underclass, sends shock waves into mainstream America. Emergency rooms, choked by the influx of drug-related victims, often cannot provide proper care for other citizens, rich or poor. The percentage of drug-related murders doubled between 1985 and 1988, threatening the safety of all Americans.

President Bush tells us that drugs remain his ``No. 1'' domestic issue. His latest drug strategy released in January, however, lacks any innovation.

The National Drug Strategy's overriding theme is punishment, not prevention. Law enforcement, border interdiction, and international anti-narcotics activities claim 70 percent of the federal drug-control budget. Education, prevention, treatment, and research compete for the remaining 30 percent.

In order to make progress in the war on drugs, our priorities must change. This does not mean shifting funds from enforcement to prevention. The federal government plays an essential role in facilitating law enforcement. But future drug strategies must address root causes. We need to stem the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that leads to drug abuse by improving treatment, rehabilitation, education, and prevention.

Vigorous enforcement is a critical component of drug control, but leaning too heavily on law enforcement has limitations. Longer sentences, federal abolition of parole, and a higher number of arrests put an enormous strain on our prison system. Rather than proposing ways to improve rehabilitation within prisons and preventing recidivism, the latest drug strategy advocates the death penalty for certain drug crimes.

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At present, few treatment programs provide meaningful opportunities for an addict to remedy educational deficits, learn job skills, find employment, or receive counseling for other problems that contribute to drug dependency. Without such services, treatment becomes a mere holding action until the patient returns to a life of dependency. The federal government does not have a single treatment center or model providing standards or accountability. An absence of such standards means federal dollars are in efficiently spent.

The bottom line is more leadership. Congress can authorize, legislate, and appropriate but it cannot provide executive-branch leadership. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander needs to take concrete steps in drug prevention and education, such as a model curriculum with incentives for local implementation. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan can advocate expansion of, as well as accountability for, federally funded drug treatment. Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin can focus greater atten tion on job training and placement for ex-addicts. Secretary of State James Baker can make narcotics control a top priority on our foreign policy agenda.

We are about to receive a new drug-policy director. In this post-cold-war, post-Gulf-war era, perhaps there is hope for a more enlightened approach to our continuing war against drugs.

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