WASHINGTON — WHAT is the best piece of advice, the narcotics expert is asked, that you can give the new drug czar? He pauses, thinking. ``Don't take the job,'' he says. ``It's a no-win situation,'' this former Reagan administration official continues. ``In four years, the Democrats will go after the drug czar as the evidence of the Bush administration's inability to deal with the problem effectively. And the administration is going to blame the same guy.''
Not everyone is so blunt or pessimistic, but most people familiar with the country's narcotics problem agree that the person appointed drug czar - a brand-new, Cabinet-level post - has a gargantuan task.
Consider these statistics. The amount of cocaine seized by law enforcement agents nearly quadrupled between 1984 and '87. But so has the amount getting past the narcotics patrol: Officials estimate they still catch only about 10 percent of the drug smuggled into the country. Moreover, the price has dropped by as much as 40 percent in that period - indicating it is plentiful and easy to obtain - even as the retail product has become more pure.
With the drugs come crime and violence. In a survey of 21 cities taken this summer, the National Institute of Justice found that more than half of the people arrested for serious crimes tested positive for drugs; in New York, the figure was 90 percent.
To turn the national battle, the drug czar has a $3.5 million budget - less than what the Pentagon spent in six minutes last year. He will have no operational authority to tell the Customs Service where to concentrate its agents. And he will have to focus the efforts of the 33 federal agencies involved in the drug war, and suggest how they spend their money - no easy feat, one which requires great clout and diplomacy.
``The drug czar is the new kid on the block, but he's also the mayor,'' observes Frank Keating, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department who is interested in the job.
Despite these limitations, Mr. Keating and others say the drug czar's task is not impossible. ``We are not talking about one man doing the entire job'' of fighting the war on drugs, says Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, who chairs the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. ``We're talking about one man coordinating the effort.''
As he breaks in the new Cabinet-level post, the drug czar may want some advice from narcotics experts. Here is a smattering:
Develop model projects and spread them across the land. Leon Kellner, who was recently the US attorney in Miami and is advising the Bush people on the drug war, cites the example of William Bennett, the former education secretary. He created ``core'' educational programs and urged schools around the country to adopt them.
That is already beginning to happen, Keating says. Colorado and New Jersey have a drug-czar program, he says. The national drug czar should set up regular meetings for state officials to meet with each other and with federal officials involved in the war.
Focus on the inner city. That is where the majority of drug abuse takes place, and that's where federal, state, and local efforts should be concentrated, says Ian Macdonald, who as head of the White House's Drug Abuse Policy Office was in charge of attacking the ``demand'' side of the drug war. As a whole, Dr. Macdonald says, some key Bush Cabinet players appear to be ``inner-city-focused.''
Focus on the criminal justice system. Eric Wish, a visiting fellow at the National Institute of Justice, notes that most drug dealers pass through the criminal justice system. ``We are spending a lot of money to find the rare drug abuser in the general population,'' when the problem is concentrated among people who are arrested, on parole, on probation, as well as in prison. Mr. Wish suggests screening all these people for drugs, monitoring them often, and putting them in drug treatment programs.
Eliminate overlapping programs. ``The drug czar can't make an agency do a better job, but he can assure that it doesn't do a redundant job,'' says Peter Reuter, a senior economist and narcotics expert at Rand Corporation.
Tap the expertise and energies of members of Congress, who will be watching the drug czar's progress closely. Representative Rangel, for example, has worked on inner city problems for years, while others, like former prosecutor and now Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida, have an interest in law enforcement. ``The drug czar has one job: to solve the drug problem,'' Mr. Kellner notes. ``He should enlist anybody and everybody to help him.''