A Good Step on Drugs

Since drug trafficking is an international problem, international cooperation to combat it has always made sense. But Washington's approach to such cooperation has for the last decade included a tool for bludgeoning others into antidrug partnership - the decertification process, by which other nations face economic sanctions by the US if they are deemed noncooperative. The result in the most important arena, Latin America, has been recurrent friction rather than tighter cooperation.

This year's certification of Mexico and decertification of Colombia made it more obvious than ever that this particular antinarcotics tool should be junked. Politics and US economic interests, rather than objective consideration of the antidrug records of both countries, dictated the final decision.

A new bill sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona would suspend the decertification process for the next two years. It also urges the formation of a high-level task force under the direction of the government's chief drug-control official, Barry McCaffrey, to reassess policy responses to both the supply and demand sides of the narcotics problem. The president would encourage other countries to form similar task forces, and in two years an international summit would be held to forge a joint antidrug strategy.

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Some may argue that this sounds like a megastudy of a problem that has already been studied to death. But the plan has three elements that strongly recommend it:

* For at least two years, and maybe more, it gets rid of the divisive, counterproductive decertification club.

* Inherent in it is a closer examination of the demand problem within the US, and the possibility of productively shifting resources to such needs as drug treatment. This aids cooperation as well, since Latin Americans have long charged that the US underplays its demand problem.

* It holds out the possibility of an international antidrug partnership based on shared interests and ideas, rather than one forced together by US threats.

The Dodd-McCain bill should be promptly enacted.

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