Washington — When a United States Customs Service inspector in Blaine, Wash., found a marijuana cigarette in the cab of truck two weeks ago, the driver knew he was in some trouble. But he probably didn't know how much trouble: The 18-wheeler, worth $120,000, was confiscated and will likely be auctioned off this month. If law-enforcement officials heed a new mandate by US Attorney General Edwin Meese III, drug users will become targets across the country. The strategy is drawing fire from many prosecutors, who say they are too busy chasing big-time traffickers to bother with small-time users. But those who have adopted a ``user prosecution'' strategy say it is one of the best arrows in the drug agents' quiver.
``Everything that's happened in the last 10 years indicates that our success on the supply side - increased seizures, increased prosecutions, increased jail sentences, increases in all of the traditional law enforcement areas - hasn't really made much of a dent in the problem,'' says Peter Nunez, US attorney for the southern district of California. ``Prosecution of users can go very far'' in reducing Americans' appetite for drugs, he says.
To that end, on March 21 the Customs Service launched its ``zero tolerance'' program, modeled after the one designed by Mr. Nunez's office in San Diego. Now, every person coming into the US caught with a scintilla of narcotics will be arrested, fingerprinted, taken for arraignment, and have his or her passport seized. And the person's vehicle will be seized and likely sold at a public auction.
In the first five weeks of the program, the Customs Service arrested 360 people and seized 542 vehicles. (If drug paraphernalia is found, but no drugs, the vehicle is seized but no one is arrested. This accounts for the higher number of vehicle seizures.)
Other local and state law enforcement agencies, including those in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, confiscate the vehicle of anyone buying drugs through the car window or transporting drugs.
Even tougher measures are being considered, says Francis Keating II, acting chairman of the National Drug Policy Board's enforcement group. The board is ``exploring the possibility'' of stamping passports of those caught bringing drugs into the US ``in such a way as to put a foreign government on notice that this is a convicted drug smuggler,'' he says.
The user-prosecution strategy makes numerical sense, Mr. Keating and others say. According to estimates by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about three-fourths of the about 23 million people in the United States who buy illegal drugs are ``casual'' users.
``If we can make casual users suffer for their actions, then perhaps they won't do it [use drugs] again,'' Keating says. That would dramatically reduce the demand for drugs, he asserts.
In a March 30 memo to all US attorneys, Attorney General Meese urged prosecutors to have ``a more consistent enforcement presence on the demand side.'' He encouraged prosecutors to target users by adopting a zero-tolerance program, seizing the assets of drug consumers, and working with state and local officials to adopt ``innovative statutes ... such as laws that limit convicted drug users' access to driver's licenses and other privileges.''
Some prosecutors are balking. ``I have 15 people on my [narcotics] task force,'' says one assistant US attorney in Tulsa, Okla. ``We don't have the personnel to go after every yuppie drug user in this part of the country,'' he says, echoing the comments of several other prosecutors interviewed.
User prosecution ``flies in the face'' of the Justice Department's overall prosecution strategy, says another US attorney. That strategy, which was reviewed by President Reagan last Thursday, instructs narcotics prosecutors to spend at least 80 percent of their time on nabbing international and national trafficking organizations.
Moreover, narcotics agents worry that putting users behind bars may create as many problems as it solves. Since 1970, the state and federal prison population has tripled, according to the Justice Department.
Those who have clamped down on drug users, however, say that the deterrent effect outweighs the possible downsides, which often evaporate in practice.
In Miami, the Task Force Street Narcotics Detail has been conducting one sting a week every week for more than two years. Undercover agents arrest dealers in a drug-trafficking area (usually a building or street corner), then arrest all the users who come to buy narcotics. And the US Coast Guard has been ordered to seize pleasure boats and arrest those on board when even small amounts of narcotics are found aboard.
``In south Florida, we're a funnel for drugs going to the rest of the nation,'' says Lt. John Brooks, commander of the detail. ``Yet we've been able to keep our head above water on the street level because of these sting operations.'' He receives requests ``almost daily'' from other law enforcement agencies on how to set up their own sting operations; in June, he will be giving a seminar on the process.
In San Diego, more than 1,000 people entering the US have been arrested since the zero-tolerance program began last year. Fewer than 50 received prison sentences, which ``isn't going to break anybody's jail budget,'' US Attorney Nunez says. The rest received probation - with certain conditions, such as regular drug testing, community service, and participation in treatment programs - or deferred prosecution, meaning they wouldn't be prosecuted if they stayed clean for a year.
Nunez says that it takes only ``an extra hour or two'' to prosecute the about 20 drug-user cases each week. The San Diego office has been ``deluged with requests'' from other US attorneys about how to set up similar, streamlined procedures, he adds.
In New Jersey, prosecutors are turning their attention to children. Under a new law, mere possession of a narcotic means a mandatory loss of one's driver's license for a minimum of six months, a minimum $500 fine, 100 hours of community service, and a potential jail term. If a young person is caught with drugs and does not yet have his or her driver's license, the state can delay granting it for up to a year.
``Kids don't believe they'll ever go to jail [for possessing drugs], and they probably won't,'' says John Hagerty, spokesman for New Jersey Attorney General Cary Edwards. ``But the most important thing in their lives is their driver's licenses, and losing them would really have an impact.''
Between July and March, the number of drug-user arrests by the New Jersey State Police jumped to 6,293, a 154 percent increase over the same period last year. Most of those arrested still face prosecution.
Mr. Hagerty says it is ``too early to tell'' whether prosecutions will have a deterrent effect. Moreover, about 30 lawsuits challenging parts of the law have been filed, so the state may lose some cases and be forced to revise sections of the law.
Nonetheless, New Jersey's law has caught the attention of other states, including Missouri, which enacted a similar law last year. Now federal officials are considering crafting a law along the same lines as the New Jersey law.