The law vs. drugs: making legislation work

Sue Rusche, one of the founders of a Georgia parent group concerned about drug use, stands in a phone booth in the rain on an island off the Georgia coast. Even while on vacation, she is urging someone hundreds of miles away that the time has come to act.

''Twenty-five states have already passed the model paraphernalia act (banning the manufacture and sale of drug accessories) and the Supreme Court has ruled in its favor,'' she says into the phone. ''Now we want to watch where the 'marijuana bill' (a proposal that would legalize marijuana for specific medical purposes) in the House goes.''

Bill Barton, president of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, rocks back in a chair in his paneled Naples, Fla., office. ''Federal and state legislation is one of our biggest drives now,'' says Mr. Barton, a father of three and a mover and shaker in the antidrug movement. ''With 18,000 names on our mailing list, we think we have the makings of a pretty good lobbying group.''

Marsha Suchard, a pile of drug pamphlets in her lap, sits in the baggage-claim area of Atlanta's airport. The Georgia housewife and English professor has just spent 90 minutes with a visitor explaining the antidrug parent movement and legislative maneuverings. ''We're very optimistic now about where we are going to go,'' she says. ''But we would be naive to think that we can dismantle the billion-dollar drug industry without strong federal policies and enforcement.''

The antidrug movement, a couple years ago not much more than a few outraged parents commiserating with one another in their living rooms, has graduated into a potent political force.

Grass-roots parent groups and savvy antidrug lobbyists in almost every one of the United States are now pushing wide-ranging political changes to combat what they consider one of America's most pervasive social problems, drug abuse.

The drug abuse prevention drive has grown from attempts to rewrite school conduct codes to efforts to redraft state and federal laws. These laws cover everything from using the military to thwart drug trafficking to closing down businesses that sell drug-related accessories.

Augmenting the thrust is an array of antidrug pamphlets, newsletters, and citizen groups that monitor legislative affairs. Criticized by some as a right-wing force bent on moralizing to the rest of America, many of the parent and other groups concerned about drug abuse nevertheless have helped spur a number of changes in recent years. These include:

* The passing of anti-paraphernalia laws -- outlawing the manufacture, distribution, and sale of drug-related accessories -- in at least 25 states.

* The rolling back of the drinking age in about 11 states.

* The passing of stiffer statues governing the sale of over-the-counter, look-alike drugs (such as caffeine tablets) in at least 14 states.

* The enacting of tougher laws for seizure of illegal drug traffic, in at least six states.

* The repeal of an amendment restricting the use of federal funds for spraying marijuana fields with herbicides.

* A move to permit the use of military personnel and hardware -- helicopters, reconnaissance planes, Navy vessels -- to aid, for the first time, in enforcing federal narcotics laws. (The Defense Appropriations Act of 1982 contains a provision that makes it legal to use the military to enforce federal narcotics laws.)

With much of the focus of the antidrug movement shifting to the political arena, many in the grass-roots movement are heartened by the tone of the Reagan administration. Since taking office, President Reagan has reshuffled the agencies involved in drug-related activities and is now shaping a double-edged plan to crack down on smugglers while backing drug prevention programs.

The antidrug campaign, as outlined by Dr. Carlton Turner, White House adviser on drugs, includes stepped-up international efforts to eradicate marijuana crops and other drug production, beefed-up enforcement, emphasis on new drug-free rehabilitation programs, continued research on the health risks of drug use, and development of parent-group prevention efforts. While the five-part program has yet to be announced officially, a few changes are already under way.

Perhaps none has been more discussed than the new joint effort of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In theory, the linkup between the agencies combines the antidrug-smuggling expertise of the DEA with the crime-fighting experience of the FBI. The FBI has been assigned joint jurisdiction with the DEA for enforcing federal drug laws, although formal operating guidelines have yet to be worked out.

Drug enforcement efforts are also shifting from going after the ''powder on the table'' (the actual drugs themselves) to ''following the money trail.'' The FBI, administration sources argue, is better equipped than the DEA to carry out such financial tracking. ''For instance, the DEA has only three accountants to help unravel the extensive money-laundering schemes of drug traffickers. The FBI has nearly 1,000,'' says one administration official. In addition, two new agencies -- one at the Internal Revenue Service and the other at the Treasury Department -- have been set up to ferret out drug-money laundering schemes.

But many critics see the Reagan administration's antidrug efforts as more window dressing than a new attack on the problem. They point out that the White House has cut the budgets of some key drug-fighting agencies. They argue that there is not much new in its plan to put FBI agents as well as DEA men on the financial trail of drug smugglers. ''Much of what this administration is claiming credit for, such as the 'money trail,' isn't really new,'' says one veteran Washington observer.''A lot of these efforts were going on under the Carter administration.''

Coupled with the planned crackdown on smuggling operations is a renewed effort to destroy ''the financial bases'' of drug traffickers. US and state enforcement officials have been aided in this area by recent changes in forfeiture laws. At least six states now have statutes that let officers seize drug-related assets, such as property or bank accounts, in certain drug cases. Four years ago Congress gave the DEA similar powers. But the new measures didn't really take effect until last year. In 1981, the DEA seized some $62 million worth of assets in drug cases - up from $36 million in 1980.

Another area coming under increasing scrutiny by antidrug activists concerns bail reform. A bill recently introduced in the US House of Representatives would give federal judges greater discretion in setting bail in drug cases. Backers of the measure argue it would prevent many smugglers, often flush with drug money, from jumping bail.

Another House proposal garnering attention from concerned parent groups in particular is the so-called, ''marijuana bill,'' introduced on Capitol Hill last September. The bill, actively supported by pro-marijuana lobbies, such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, proposes legalizing marijuana for specific medical purposes. Thirty-two states have already passed such laws, but have been unable to implement them because of federal stipulations. The House proposal, which already has 83 cosponsors, would do away with such restrictions.

Not surprisingly, parent groups and other anti-marijuana lobbies have been outspoken in their criticism of the bill. ''The (pro-marijuana groups) are using the health issue to try to legalize marijuana since they've absolutely lost on the decriminalization angle,'' says one observer.

But perhaps no recent legislative move could have more far-reaching consequences than a little-known clause of the Defense Appropriations Act of 1982 signed into law last December. The provision alters the 103-year-old ''posse comitatus law,'' which had prohibited the use of the military in enforcing civil law. Suddenly, it was possible to send in the Marines to help stop drug traffic. Operation Thunderbolt, conducted in south Florida in late 1981, saw ''mini-AWACs'' and assault helicopters used to slow the state's drug trade.

The new thrust, which evoked heated debate in Congress, continues to spark worries of police-state tactics among many observers. But the move has been warmly endorsed by many parent groups and seems to be one of the centerpieces in a three-month-old drive by Vice-President George Bush and a federal task force to stamp out trafficking in Florida.

The federal government's new dragnet also includes increasing the number of federal judges, customs agents, and DEA officials in Florida, as well as using Navy destroyers to help the Coast Guard intercept drug smugglers at sea.

Yet many states, too, are moving swiftly to inaugurate new antidrug campaigns. One of the most visible is Texas, a state that has had a recent history of lenient drug laws. Now in the second year, the state's program is a double-barreled effort including stiff new laws for drug offenders and a massive public-awareness campaign. The program is considered one of the most comprehensive attacks on drugs in the US.

In many cases, states are tailoring antidrug legislation to confront local problems. Illinois, for example, has passed a law restricting the manufacture and sale of Talwin -- a laboratory-produced drug that produces a heroin-like effect when taken with another prescription drug, Pyribenzamine. This two-drug combo, referred to as ''T's and Blues,'' hit the streets of Chicago a few years when heroin was in short supply. Within a short time, some 2,000 to 3,000 people were becoming addicted to the new mixture each year.

In its crackdown on drugs, Florida has tightened the availability of certain prescription drugs. But there, like elsewhere across the US, some of the antidrug efforts have run into stiff resistance from pharmaceutical firms.

Still, Florida is recognized as one of the US leaders in drug prevention -- but it also has one of the biggest problems. A key part of the its drive is the setting up of drug prevention programs in schools. Called ALPHA, the programs now operate in 11 elementary schools. They are aimed at identifying children who generally don't cope well. With parental approval, the children are placed in special classes, where stress is put on decisionmaking and behavior control.

New York, which has the largest school-based drug prevention program in the country, recently launched what is also the country's biggest news media blitz against drug abuse. Called ''Open Your Eyes,'' the six-month pilot project consists of television and radio public-service announcements (some in Spanish) to drive home the point that ''the drug problem is everywhere,'' but that services already exist to combat it. There is a toll-free number for inquiring callers.

Clearly there appears to be a new groundswell of support for a new move against drug abuse. Tired of seeing children fall under the influence of marijuana and being told that the drug culture had won, parents, and even students themselves, are fighting back. Their vigor appears to be spreading beyond their own living rooms and school districts to state legislatures, Capitol Hill, and the Pentagon. Even America's private sector is being enjoined to contribute.

Nationwide, there is a sense that the status quo will no longer do. The hand wringing, the feelings of hopelessness and frustration are now giving way to new initiatives and clear-eyed attempts at solutions.

But just as forces seem to be marshaling anew against drug abuse, so does the foe remain formidable. Statistics are just beginning to indicate a decline in the number of regular juvenile drug users. Other figures show continued high levels of drug taking, and even some increases in certain sectors of society. Clearly the demand is to maintain the new initiative against drug abuse and move even farther along. More than one parent and lawmaker has his eye on the generation to come. But the task of carving out a more drug-free society for them seems to have already begun. Where to write for further information

National Institute on Drug Abuse 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, Md. 20857

PRIDE Parents Resources and Information on Drug Education Georgia State University University Plaza Atlanta, Ga. 30303

ACTION Drug Use Prevention Program 806 Connecticut Ave. NW Washington, D.C. 20525

National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth 9805 Dameron Drive Silver Spring, Md. 20902

Channel One Clearinghouse Corporation Box 8, Lanesville Station Gloucester, Mass. 01930

Straight Inc. Box 40052 St. Petersburg, Fla. 33743

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