`Opportunity costs' and drugs

THE otherwise successful US visit last week of Miguel de la Madrid ended with something of a thud. Just as the Mexican President was leaving Washington, reports came out that a US drug enforcement agent had been abducted, beaten, and tortured by Mexican police while he was under cover in Guadalajara. At this writing, many questions about the incident remain unanswered. Fortunately the agent, Victor Cortez, has been returned to the United States, in a state of health at least good enough to let him walk off his plane under his own power.

A central theme of Mr. de la Madrid's Washington visit was the restoration of a spirit of cooperation between the two countries as they struggle with common problems, notably drugs. The Cortez incident points up how difficult that cooperation will be.

The Mexicans are right in insisting that much of the international drug problem is a matter of demand in the US, rather than supply from Mexico. But agent Cortez's unhappy experience in Guadalajara will make it harder for Mexican authorities to dismiss as fabrication or exaggeration US charges of official corruption.

President Reagan's announcement of a $266 million beefing up of drug enforcement along the 1,900-mile Mexican border is a welcome concrete action of the type this page has repeatedly called for.

The program includes the hiring and posting of 350 new agents in the Southwest. It also includes the transfer of 200 agents from other parts of the country. The administration needs to be careful that it isn't just moving the problem around. Part of the rationale for the new focus on the Mexican border region is that authorities feel they are at least getting a handle on the drug problem in Florida. Let's hope the new initiative in the Southwest doesn't mean a loss of enforcement momentum in the Southeast.

It's still not clear that the administration has a comprehensive antidrug program -- hoopla notwithstanding. It's also not at all clear that a national antidrug mentality has been as firmly established as it should be. The national drug problem did not develop this summer; it's been brewing for decades.

Yet the collective response to this social problem has consisted largely of apathy, inertia, and fuzzy thinking. Has anyone really thought through what would be done should all those mass drug tests that have been called for start identifying millions of users?

On a more positive note, it might be well to contemplate how the economy, to say nothing of human lives, will blossom once the surge in drug use abates, as it surely must. Resources now being consumed because of drugs -- in security, health care, insurance, quality control in the workplace -- will be redirected more fruitfully elsewhere.

This ``opportunity cost'' argument for dealing with the drug problem is especially relevant in the border region of Mexico, which has such potential for the economic development that is crucial to Mexico as a whole.

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