Drugs: the Forgotten Debate

By , Richard White is a fellow at Harvard University, where he teaches a seminar on narcotics policy. He is a former CIA, White House, and State Department narcotics adviser.

WHATEVER happened to drugs?

In 1987, the presidential campaign was a battlefield in the "war on drugs." George Bush and Michael Dukakis hurled verbal hand grenades at each other, both claiming to be tougher on drugs. Both promised to spend more money on anti-narcotics programs. It was a campaign that featured the death penalty for drug kingpins, zero tolerance, and Willie Horton.

It was a dirty fight and Mr. Bush won. In his inaugural address he promised, "This scourge will stop."

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Now, four years later, the scourge rages on. Drugs and the crime they produce are as bad as ever.

However, the drug issue seems to have disappeared from the radar screens of currently debated issues. None of the presidential candidates is facing the drug issue. None is offering realistic solutions.

What happened? Are Republicans avoiding narcotics because of a failure to make progress in fighting drugs over the last 12 years? Are Democrats silent because they, too, have no realistic solution to the drug crisis on our streets?

Or is our nation's preoccupation with the economy so overpowering that it allows little room to face other issues?

Whatever the reasons for drugs disappearing from the campaign, it is nonetheless sad. On our streets and in our cities, drug use continues at an alarming rate.

* Although casual drug use by teenagers and the middle class has dropped, hard-core crack users are gaining both in numbers and in the amounts of drugs they take. While we seem to be solving the problem in our suburbs, the problem is worse in our cities.

* Heroin use, for years estimated at about 500,000 addicts, is increasing at a frightening rate. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) estimates that there are 750,000 addicts; many newcomers use heroin to come down more gently from crack cocaine highs.

* Washington, D.C., is now the murder capital of the world. Each year a new homicide record is set as inner-city youths, fighting for crack and its lucrative profits, kill each other and innocent bystanders. In Baltimore, an addict still averages a crime every other day.

* The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 25 percent of all AIDs cases are from intravenous drug use, and the percentage is growing.

* More countries are producing more drugs than ever. Coca growing in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia continues unabated in spite of increased eradication efforts. Coca growth has spread into other South American countries.

* Heroin production has skyrocketed. Tons of cheap, pure heroin from Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia, and Mexico are glutting the narcotics market. DEA estimates United States heroin consumption to be about 12 tons per year; Burma alone produces 270 tons.

* Our borders are as porous as they were four years ago. Record narcotics seizures have done little to stem the tide of smuggled narcotics, and our prisons are overflowing with drug offenders.

We cannot afford to ignore the drug problem. Our candidates must not only resurrect the drug debate of 1988, but must go further. They should campaign on narcotics platforms that deal realistically with the drug problem. We don't need more 30-second "sound bites" calling for death penalties that will be neither legislated nor executed.

All of the candidates, including the president, should take a hard look at our current drug strategy. We need to determine what has worked and what has not worked in the drug war. We need to shift money and people to drug programs that make a difference.

If the candidates looked hard, they would see that narcotics crop eradication in foreign countries has not worked. It is costly, and merely spreads narcotics production to other countries.

Domestic eradication of marijuana has not worked. High-grade marijuana is now a major cash crop in all 50 states.

Assigning the military to the drug war has been a billion-dollar flop. Navy destroyers and Air Force AWAC aircraft have been unable to stop drug trafficking. Innovative smugglers who swallow condoms full of cocaine or sew heroin into the bellies of live goldfish continue to thrive in this lucrative enterprise.

But other programs do work. Drug education has reduced drug use in high schools. Between 1988 and 1991, teenage cocaine use dropped 63 percent.

Drug treatment works. Methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine are drugs successful in treating heroin addiction. Unfortunately, only 7 percent of current hard-core addicts are enrolled in treatment programs.

Research to find a cocaine addiction treatment similar to methadone is promising, although the $36 million federal funding is inadequate.

Street-level enforcement also works. Raids on crack houses, undercover operations, and surveillance of drug-dealing street corners make it difficult for crack users to buy their dope.

There are other areas where our drug strategy can be improved, but no change will be made until our candidates put narcotics back on the campaign agenda. If not, our "war on drugs" will grind wearily, wastefully, and ineffectively on.

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