US Wrestles With Drug Strategy
Washington must decide what method to stress: law enforcement, education, or treatment. POLICY DILEMMA
AMERICA has reached a crossroads in its war against illicit drugs. The White House and Congress must soon decide: What weapons work best against drugs? Should the top priority be law enforcement? Or education? Or treatment?Skip to next paragraph
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In September, United States drug czar William Bennett submits his new drug control strategy to Congress. Lawmakers are eager to learn where Mr. Bennett will deploy federal manpower and dollars to attack the drug crisis.
Experts say there are essentially four choices. The problem for Bennett will be picking the methods he thinks work best, then allocating scarce resources to those areas. The choices include:
Law enforcement. The Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Customs, Drug Enforcement Administration, and other agencies all need more manpower to halt drugs at the border and apprehend narcotics traffickers. But there is a problem: Lawmen so far have not been able to reduce the flow of drugs significantly.
International action. Greater resources could be devoted to overseas efforts, including foreign aid, to reduce the production and importation of drugs from other countries. Problem: Key countries are sometimes unwilling or unable to cooperate.
Education. Starting in elementary schools, the government could boost spending for programs that teach children to resist drugs. Problem: Progress could take many years.
Treatment. Vast new resources could be poured into programs to treat heroin and cocaine addicts, and conduct research on more-effective methods of treatment. Problem: Costs are high; results, sometimes uncertain.
Mathea Falco, a former assistant secretary of state who dealt with international narcotics problems, says in recent years most federal resources were devoted to law enforcement. Other areas were neglected.
Ms. Falco, author of a just-released study entitled ``Winning the Drug War,'' observes that US drug efforts have gone through cycles since the early 1900s.
Beginning with the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, drugs were seen primarily as a law-enforcement problem. Falco says the assumption was: ``Effective enforcement ... will help reduce or eliminate drug abuse.''
President Nixon sharply altered that policy in 1969. He emphasized reducing drug use through treatment, rehabilitation, and research. Mr. Nixon poured two-thirds of all federal drug money into such preventive programs.
President Reagan reversed that policy once more in 1981 when he again poured funds into law enforcement. Falco notes:
``From 1981 through 1986, funding for law enforcement more than doubled - from $800 million in 1981 to $1.9 billion in 1986. About 90 percent of the total increase in federal drug-control funding ... went to law enforcement....
``Total federal funding for prevention, education, and treatment declined from $404 million in 1981 to $338 million in 1985; when adjusted for inflation, this amounted to a reduction of almost 40 percent,'' she says.
The differences between the Nixon strategy and the Reagan strategy highlight the main debate about the drug war.