WASHINGTON — AIMING to stamp alcohol abuse with the same social stigma of danger and illegality now associated with illicit drugs, the Bush administration is expanding its war on drugs to underage drinking.
The policy change, largely philosophical and not backed by any new funding, was the only significant shift in an otherwise status quo strategy. It is heavier on anti-drug enforcement than on prevention and treatment.
The integration of alcohol abuse into drug policy is "extremely significant," says David Musto, a professor of psychiatry and the history of medicine at Yale University. "For decades the issue of alcohol has been kept separate from drugs."
Bush's first drug czar, William Bennett, had explicitly rejected bringing alcohol use under the drug policy agenda, saying the difficulty of taking on a culturally accepted practice like drinking would weaken the broader anti-drug fight.
But the new strategy identifies alcohol abuse among teens as a "gateway" to drug abuse and other costly health-care problems.
Statistics released with the strategy Jan., 27 by the new drug czar, Bob Martinez, show that while there has been a 20 percent drop in underage drinking since 1988, with alcohol is still the most abused substance among youth under 21. In 1991, 30 percent of high school seniors surveyed reported heavy drinking (five or more drinks in a row) at least once in the previous two weeks, the survey says. Policy shift symbolic
While the policy shift will generally be greeted by drug experts as a positive development, it is still more symbolic than substantive, says Karst Besteman, a former director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse and now director of the substance abuse center for the Institutes for Behavior Resources Inc.
"This is a popular idea to which they're going to contribute no money," Mr. Besteman says.
The National Drug Control Policy budget will increase by 6 percent to $12.7 billion. But part of the boost in that figure is the inclusion of existing funding in other federal agencies for alcohol treatment and prevention programs.
The fourth annual drug control strategy echoes past strategies in its roughly 70-30 budget split between enforcement programs and prevention and treatment. A new "Weed and Seed" program will use $500 million to target communities hit hardest by drugs.
A simultaneous law enforcement and prevention program will weed out dealers while seeding new money for social programs.
Bush administration officials attending the release of the strategy, including the president himself, Attorney General William Barr, Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, and Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, - all cited improving drug statistics to support the success of the Bush strategy over the past four years.
Federal statistics have consistently shown that overall drug use is down over the past decade, and particularly among young people.
That decline was further confirmed by the annual survey of high school seniors and college students done by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
The survey, released Monday along with the new strategy, found that 29 percent of these students had used an illegal drug in 1991, down from 33 percent in 1990 and 54 percent in 1979. (Critics of the report say that the figures are skewed because dropouts are not considered.)
Martinez suggested that the recent gains in the drug war were due to the near-doubling of funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy between 1988 and 1992 - from $6.6 billion to $11.9 billion. Drug czar office lost clout
Meanwhile, the claims of the drug war success ironically come at a time when the drug czar's office itself has lost the limelight it once enjoyed. When President Bush entered office in 1989, polls showed drug abuse to be the public's top concern.
Bush's first prime-time speech was about his war on drugs, and he named Reagan administration Secretary of Education William Bennett to be the nation's first drug czar.
The blunt-talking Bennett made the drug policy office a headline grabber from day one and staffed it with highly respected professionals.
But the low-key Martinez, a former governor of Florida unfamiliar with Washington power-brokering - took over from Bennett a year ago at a time when the malaise over the economy eclipsed the drug issue as a public concern and, thus, as a White House concern.
"Decimated" is the word a number of drug experts use to describe the office's professional expertise after recent staff cuts.
And many observers say that the decline of importance of drug policy within the Bush administration was evident in the humiliating eviction of Martinez from his choice office in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House.
The outgoing Bush chief of staff, John Sununu, moved in and Martinez moved a block away.