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A War Worth Fighting

The antidrug strategy just announced by the Clinton administration contains little that's new. But it shouldn't be dismissed with a "ho-hum, the drug war again."

Effectiveness in this "war" has to be measured over years, even decades. The nation should have learned that by now. The battle has many fronts, and persistence is key. If tactics in this latest proposal are familiar, that's largely because the challenges, and needed responses, are unchanged.

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Cocaine production in Colombia and transport through Mexico remain rampant. So eradication and interdiction are still called for. Youthful drug use still blights many lives. A survey last fall by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University showed that increasing numbers of teens know someone who's using hard drugs, and that the age at which alcohol and drug use commences has slipped down to 12-13. Education and antidrug advertising are still crucial.

Much debate centers on what part of the federal antidrug budget - the administration proposes $17.8 billion - should go to interdiction and enforcement, and what part to education, treatment, and other preventive measures. The new strategy keeps the balance at about one-third for prevention, two-thirds for enforcement.

We'd like to see the balance shift somewhat, to reflect the critical importance of reducing the demand for drugs among Americans. At the least, 40 percent of the funding ought to be invested in prevention.

Prevention has many facets, prominent among them:

*Continued emphasis on keeping children from developing a drug habit. This includes school-based programs. Surveys show that kids are much less optimistic about how "drug-free" their schools are than principals and teachers. Public-service advertising that reaches youngsters through the media, though its impact is hard to gauge, is a needed counterweight to the glorification of drugs and alcohol in some films and commercial ads. Antidrug messages are also a reminder to parents to take a stand against drugs.

*Increased availability of drug treatment programs for prisoners, and as an alternative to incarceration for some users. Experts have long noted that hard-core users need special attention. If their habit can be broken while they're in the custody of the state, later drug offenses and public expenditures can be significantly cut.

*Fresh emphasis on the role of religious teaching in combating drug use. In announcing the new strategy, Vice President Gore struck an important note when he called drug abuse "a spiritual problem" connected to feelings of emptiness and alienation. The CASA survey found that kids who regularly attend religious services are half as likely, on average, to use drugs or associate with those who do than peers who rarely go to church. A deeper sense of purpose and meaning in life is a strong defense against drugs.

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The antidrug work that counts most is being done away from the public glare, in discussions between parents and children, counselors and students, pastors and members of congregations. A national policy has its place, however, as a visible, unmistakable affirmation that this "war" won't be abandoned, or lost.

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