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US Drug-Policy Pendulum Swings to Youth Education

THE nation's drug czar is casting a wider, longer, and pricier net to combat illegal drug use.

In the ever-evolving US strategy to control illicit drug use, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey yesterday said the nation will put more emphasis on educating America's youth - at younger ages - about the dangers of drugs. Moreover, the education effort will not only target illegal drugs, but will also extend to "gateway drugs" of alcohol and tobacco.

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The revised strategy is likely to renew the longstanding debate over how the US should invest the bulk of its resources: trying to quell demand or attempting to limit supply.

The revised antidrug strategy represents a 10-year federal commitment, supported by five-year budgets vs. one-year, to ensure continuity in drug- combatting efforts.

"This strategy's overarching purpose is the reduction of illegal drug use and the harm it causes," Mr. McCaffrey said. "A nation that can set and reach a timed goal of landing a man on the moon can certainly reach the objective of protecting the safety and health of its citizens by working together to reduce drug abuse."

President Clinton has requested $16 billion in the 1998 budget - an $818 million increase over the 1997 antidrug budget. In placing a greater emphasis on the nation's youth, the new strategy calls for $620 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, up from $558 million this year and $438 million in 1996. It also calls for $175 million for a national media campaign aimed at youth.

Recent studies show a rise in drug use - mainly in eighth to 12th graders. But most children are exposed to drugs for the first time in sixth grade. Studies also show that youngsters who use tobacco and alcohol at young ages are more likely to use illegal drugs later.

But the liberal, Washington-based Drug Policy Foundation says the new policies don't go far enough to educate kids against the use of drugs.

"We noticed a shift in the rhetoric toward a kinder, gentler policy, but if you look at the budget numbers, there is still a lot of emphasis on law enforcement, prisons - the traditional focus of drug policies," says foundation spokesman Scott Ehlers.

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Mr. Ehlers points out that the federal budget calls for a $41 million increase for community policing, a $45 million increase for drug courts, a $48 million increase to boost Border Patrol in the Southwest, and $17 million more for counterdrug programs in Peru, the leading source of cocaine.

But John Walters, former deputy director for supply reduction in the drug policy office of the Bush administration, says the Clinton administration's new drug strategy is misguided. More needs to be done to stop the flow of drugs into the US, he argues, noting that the Clinton administration is spending only half as much on interdiction as the Bush administration did.

Mr. Walters, now president of Philanthropy Roundtable in Washington, also doubts whether the Clinton approach will prove effective in curtailing drug use among Americans. More money has already been spent to teach young people about the dangers of drug use, but demand continues to climb, he says.

"We all want demand reduction, but the Clinton policies have made more drugs available on playgrounds at candy-store prices," Walters says.

He also points out that McCaffrey had strongly supported Mexico's antidrug czar, who was recently arrested for protecting Mexico's leading drug lord. Two-thirds of illegal drugs entering the US are channeled through or produced in Mexico.

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