One of the most serious problems in combating drug abuse among young people has been that too many well-known Americans set very bad examples by using illicit substances. Make the famous live up to their obligations as models for the young and impressionable, the thinking has gone, and society will move a big step forward to coping with drug abuse.
Progress now has been made in this direction: The outcomes in two highly publicized drug cases in recent days are likely to be very helpful as a deterrent. One case involves sports figures; the other, members and staff of Congress's House of Representatives.
Both arenas share not only a responsibility to the young, but also a self-interest in preserving an image of responsibility. Congress is the national legislative body of all citizens; baseball, because it long has been the national pastime, carries a similar if informal connotation of public ownership and involvement.
The baseball case involves four major league players. Three have just been sentenced to three months in prison and fined for having tried to purchase cocaine; the fourth will be sentenced early next month.
In sentencing the best-known of the four the judge pointedly called him a ''national hero'' who therefore had ''certain obligations and responsibilities you must live up to.'' This is a point emphasized two months ago by pro basketball players and management when they announced professional sports' stiffest program to get rid of drug use. The basketball plan would permanently ban players who were found to use heroin or cocaine.
On Capitol Hill, the House Ethics Committee has completed a probe of more than a year into allegations of drug use among several previous members of the House and among staff members. They found ''insufficient evidence'' that two scrutinized present House members had used drugs, but ''substantial evidence'' that three former members had taken them. The committee found evidence that 42 congressional employees had used drugs, and that four former employees had distributed them. The committee will notify their employers.
As with the baseball players, shining the spotlight on guilty persons will help make clear that the nation is increasingly unwilling to tolerate drug use.
It is up to the courts to decide whether each defendant is guilty. When the finding is of guilt, it is important not only that sentences be humane but that they reflect the nation's need to show that drug abuse is not an innocent pursuit but a crime requiring punishment.
At the same time, it should be noted that finding out and punishing offenders - and offering them counseling and other support if they come forward for help voluntarily - is easier when institutions are as interested in preserving their images as in helping the drug offender. Thus alertness to the needs of all persons victimized by drug use, not just those aided by leagues or other institutions, remains society's broader obligation.