THE administration's war on drugs has been a brilliant media success. A marijuana smuggling ring centered in Texas, which has taken in an estimated $60 million in profits over the past four years, was recently broken up. Some time ago, President Reagan posed for the TV cameras amid mountains of marijuana and armories of Uzis seized by the South Florida Task Force, a coordinated effort by nine federal crime-fighting agencies. Now comes word from Hollywood that Vice-President George Bush, whose office coordinates the 11 task forces that are the linchpin of the administration's antidrug efforts, will be making a cameo appearance playing himself on the hit TV show ``Miami Vice.'' That's certainly trendy. Yet despite the glowing stories and photo opportunities, despite Attorney General Edwin Meese's proclamation that ``the drug kingpins'' are being put out of business, despite the fact that the volume of drug seizures has dramatically increased, the administration is badly losing the war.
That's partly because some of the police turn out to be robbers -- or so it seems, from the recent allegations of drug heists and murders carried out by the Miami police. But the bigger problem is the administration's emphasis on stopping drug trafficking by trying to seal the nation's borders. It won't work.
The drug war version of ``Victory at Sea'' has put a crimp in the marijuana traffic, since its bulk makes it an attractive target for law enforcement. But because there's still a strong market for marijuana, that only means more domestically grown weed. It is one reason that marijuana is estimated by proponents of legalizing marijuana to have become an $18 billion industry, the nation's biggest cash crop.
Meanwhile, importers are switching from marijuana to the more compact -- and potentially far more deadly -- cocaine. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimated in 1981 that Americans used between 36 and 66 tons of cocaine; last year it upped the estimate to between 61 and 84 tons. James Lieber reports in the current Atlantic Monthly that Florida cocaine wholesalers' costs have dropped 40 percent during that time.
Cocaine importers have shifted their routes. Even if one boat is captured, a dealer still has an ample supply of drugs, while the federal agents get their statistics and their publicity. A Rand Corporation study calculates that even if 40 percent of all cocaine imports were seized, the price for a kilogram would increase an insignificant 3.4 percent.
That would hardly affect demand.
Law enforcement officials have learned these facts of life. As John Lawn, administrator of the DEA, testified at his confirmation hearing last summer, at the beginning of the task force drive he thought that ``with sufficient resources the drug problem could be addressed and solved with law enforcement alone.'' Three years later, Mr. Lawn had concluded that the biggest issue wasn't how to keep the supply down but how to cut demand.
Elected officials, entranced by all the high-tech crime-fighting equipment -- entranced too by the attention that comes from parachuting in to make a drug bust -- have focused attention and public dollars on the drug wars at the expense of other approaches. Even as Nancy Reagan has made fighting drugs her public issue, bringing her message to schoolhouses across the nation, the administration has cut the Department of Education's drug-prevention budget from $14 million to a trivial $2.9 million.
Drug education is hardly a cure-all. Like many well-intentioned pedagogical efforts, it can be mind-numbingly tedious; perversely, it may actually invite experimentation. But the successful classroom efforts to discourage smoking have taught some lessons. To appeal to adolescents, whose idea of the long term is next weekend, the emphasis has to be on the here and now, with instruction stressing short-term impacts rather than down-the-road health consequences.
Private groups are doing a fine job of helping cocaine addicts kick the habit; they deserve public support. And for serious drug abusers who won't reform voluntarily, the possibility of involuntary civil commitment -- not jail but treatment, on an outpatient basis if at all possible -- deserves to be tried out. That idea, while rightly troubling to civil libertarians, offers a way to rescue individuals trapped by a drug that prevents them from making choices for themselves.
Useful education, private treatment programs, and involuntary commitment lack the glamour of those Miami raids. But they get at the heart of the problem: dissuading people from using drugs. Though the current drug campaign promises quick and easy answers, it hasn't solved anything. Indeed, it may inadvertently have made things worse.
David L. Kirp is a professor of law and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.