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Clinton General Maps Strategy For Drug War

More youths turning to illicit narcotics

The drug war is back - or at least it's back on Washington's priority agenda.

Amid troubling signs of a rise in illegal substance used by youngsters, an energetic new White House drug czar is trying to refocus American drug-fighting efforts. He's getting a bigger budget and a larger staff for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he's been promised increased influence within administration councils.

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The anti-drug chief, retired four-star Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, is well-respected on both sides of the political aisle. But Republicans are grumbling that President Clinton has conveniently discovered the need to fight drugs during an election year, after all but ignoring the issue his first three years in office.

The GOP wants the US to pour even more money into stopping drugs at the border and seizing them in the countries where they're produced. "Why do we continue to not fund two areas that were working?" Rep. William Zeliff (R) of New Hampshire asked Mr. McCaffrey during a May 8 congressional appearance.

McCaffrey replied that the administration is funding such efforts - and that interdiction isn't as easy as it once was.

"They're not flying drugs from Colombia to South Florida. That ain't the game," the drug czar said. "The easy pickings are over."

Fighting drugs requires a systems approach, says McCaffrey. That means proceeding on a number of fronts, including antidrug education and drug-user treatment, as well as law-enforcement efforts.

McCaffrey's goal: Return the nation to pre-Vietnam era levels of drug use. That needs "a 10-year commitment to confronting the issue," he said earlier this month.

Amid all the warnings about drug use in America and the constant portrayal of drugs and drug violence in the media, it's easy to miss the fact that the battle against substance abuse has made much progress in recent years.

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Between 1979 and '94, the number of Americans who reported taking some kind of illicit drug during the previous month fell almost in half to 12.5 million, according to federal government figures. Use of cocaine fell even more, with the number of past-month users declining from 5.3 million to 1.3 million. Reagan-era interdiction efforts, the spread of antidrug education efforts, and the aging of baby boomers all contributed to the decline.

By the time Mr. Clinton took office, drugs no longer seemed an epidemic sweeping through American society. In one of his first acts as president, Clinton reduced the Office of National Drug Control Policy staff from 146 to 25, to help fulfill a campaign promise to cut White House staff. Congress rejected administration efforts to increase funds for some antidrug education programs, and the whole drug-war effort seemed to stagnate in the early '90s, despite the efforts of Clinton's first drug czar, ex-police chief Lee Brown.

But Clinton undeniably has had more personal experience with the destructive effects of drugs than have previous occupants of the Oval Office - his brother Roger is a recovering cocaine addict. And now the administration appears to have gotten anti-drug religion. Disturbing statistics are surely one reason: In the 1990s, "we have had probably a doubling in the rate of use of illegal drugs by young people," said McCaffrey at a recent briefing for the press. Marijuana and LSD indulgence is skyrocketing among youths, while fear of the consequences of drugs is declining.

McCaffrey's appointment, if nothing else, appears to signal a new antidrug seriousness in Washington. Until his recent retirement he was the most highly decorated Army general on active duty and a likely candidate for the post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As head of the US Southern Command he organized extensive successful drug interdiction activities, and he reportedly was given a seat on the National Security Council as an inducement to leave the military.

One of his first acts was to winnow the drug office priorities from 14 to five. His No. 1 goal, he says, is to reduce drug use among US youth. His second goal is to cut drug-related violence. Priority No. 3 is to stop drugs at the border, No. 4 is to break up supply sources, and No. 5 is to cut the costs illegal drugs impose on American society.

Even though he's an ex-military man with experience at interdiction, McCaffrey has vowed to spend most of his time fighting drug demand in the US. That's good, say many antidrug experts - but the budget dollars of the US Drug Strategy may indicate a different approach.

"The most expensive way to control drugs is through seizing them overseas, yet there's a 25 percent increase in the budget for international operations," complains Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

Overall the administration is seeking $15.1 billion for its antidrug strategy in 1997, a 9.3 percent increase from this year's spending. About one-third of the total would go to reducing demand for drugs through prevention and treatment. The rest would go for law-enforcement efforts.

"I don't see evidence of forward looking [approaches]," says Brookings Institution's Paul Stares, author of a book on the global drug problem. "We need to do more research to understand what kind of prevention programs work, and what doesn't."

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