The United Nations General Assembly held a special session last month on the drug problem. It ended with the usual platitudinous statement, but it was more significant for its dissonance than its harmony. This could be the beginning of constructive change.
Attacking drugs by trying to reduce the supply has not worked. Instead, it has generated enormous amounts of money for those who break the law -- $400 billion a year in the estimates of some UN agencies. That is approximately the gross national product of Mexico. It is enough to underwrite pervasive corruption, not simply of a few police officers but of entire social and political systems in some countries. Implicit in the speeches at the UN was that the biggest victims of the drug trade are the countries that make the money and live with the corruption.
Continuing failure has inspired drug enforcement authorities to try to get out of their hole by digging harder. As the failures mount, enforcers become more determined and insensitive to other considerations. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Policy, complains that critics of his zero-tolerance policy are plotting to legalize drugs. The UN conference didn't mention this, but it might not be a bad idea. It would at least take the money out of the drug trade along with corruption.
The General Assembly's session on drugs corresponded with publication of a letter to Secretary-General Kofi Annan making the point that enforcement efforts are doing more harm than drug abuse. The significance of the letter is less in what it said than in who signed it - approximately 600 prominent individuals both in the United States and abroad, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, as well as Nobel Prize winners, former Latin American presidents, former members of Congress, and ambassadors. Surely the views of these experienced and respected people are worthy of serious consideration.
A recent sting operation by the US Customs Service in Mexico caused an illustrative diplomatic incident. There were more than 150 arrests, but it was done without what Mexicans regarded as adequate clearance. Customs feared corruption was so pervasive that Mexican officials couldn't be trusted. This affair reveals a common mind-set in organizations that are engaged in strongly felt but losing causes. It was this mind-set that led the Army to feel it had to destroy Vietnam villages in order to save them. It was what led the Reagan White House to mount the illegal Iran-Contra operation after Congress cut off further aid to Nicaraguan rebels. It is what is driving drug-enforcement officers to do anything to catch drug traders and dealers, and never mind law or diplomacy.
Mexico is the last country in which the US ought to try something like this without detailed, explicit understandings with the highest officials of the Mexican government. If these understandings are not forthcoming (which they are unlikely to be), then the proposed operation ought to be abandoned, no matter what the temptations.
As Mexican Foreign Minister Rosario Green put it, "We Mexicans are very jealous of our national sovereignty." The reason is evident to anybody with even a cursory knowledge of the history of Mexican-US relations. Approximately half of Mexico's national territory was lost to the US in the mid-19th century. This was followed in the early 20th century by well-meaning but misguided military intervention by that great apostle of self-determination Woodrow Wilson. Most Americans may have forgotten, but most Mexicans haven't.
Coincidentally, the US Senate spent most of June wrestling to no conclusion with the problem of tobacco. This is at least as harmful as the illegal drugs, but nobody has suggested that it should be outlawed. One of the knottiest issues is what to do about the many Americans who have made their living for generations by growing or processing tobacco. It may occur to some senators that this is not very different from the problem that Peru and Bolivia have with what to do about their citizens who grow coca and make cocaine. This, in turn, may lead to more sympathetic understanding of the problems of drug producers.
Like tobacco, alcohol is a legal public health threat. Alcohol was once illegal; efforts to prohibit it had the same results as the war on drugs - failure, empowerment of gangs, and corruption of police forces. Alcohol and tobacco are now recognized as health problems, as are sexually transmitted diseases, not matters of law enforcement.
We'll begin to make progress with illegal drugs when they're dealt with as a problem of health rather than law enforcement.
* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.