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Shifting the Strategy In the War on Drugs

Overseas interdiction has failed; Clinton now wants to switch focus to reducing drug demand at home

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THE Clinton administration is preparing to unveil a major Tretargeting of the nation's $8.5 billion-a-year war on illegal narcotics.

Instead of military and police efforts to intercept and destroy drugs in Latin America or at sea, the focus will be on reducing drug consumption at home - a move certain to stir controversy inside and outside the drug-enforcement establishment.

The policy, which may be announced as early as today, represents the latest twist in government efforts since the 1960s to stamp out illegal drug use and the crime associated with it.

During the Reagan and Bush administrations, a major role in the drug war shifted from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the Department of Defense. Since 1987, United States advisers, helicopters, Aegis cruisers, aircraft and, in some cases, troops have assisted Latin American militaries in the Andes in search-and-destroy raids on drug fields and labs. They also have tried to intercept shipments by plane and boat.

But administration officials and outside experts say the policy has failed to stop the flow of drugs into the US. Illegal narcotics remain plentiful and cheap. And, in some cases, US military aid intended to fight drugs has instead propped up corrupt militaries and police at a time when fragile democracies have been struggling to take root.

``We can't say the old policy is a total failure,'' says Jim Miller, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. ``We will still require police and military interdiction, but on the demand side and on the public-health side, we want equity: prevention, education, and treatment.''

State Department Counselor Tim Wirth told Congress Sept. 14: ``We will shift emphasis away from transit interdiction,'' which he called ``enormously expensive.''

Sources at the State Department and the White House say the new drug strategy, which has been pushed by Attorney General Janet Reno, is being reviewed at the Pentagon, Treasury, National Security Council, Customs, DEA, and Federal Bureau of Investigation before going to President Clinton for final review.

If Congress agrees to shift funds from foreign drug interdiction to efforts at home, the move is sure to be welcomed by leaders of drug-producing and drug-transit countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Officials in Colombia, Venezuela, Thailand, and elsewhere long have asked why their police should risk their lives and attack their drug merchants when the US has been unable to reduce demand in Los Angeles, Washington, and New York.

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