Stopping the intense production and massive use of illegal drugs remains a national priority, though it's not getting much attention on the hustings. There are, however, some things worth noting and celebrating.
Statistics show sharp declines in youth drug use. Drug use among 12-17-year-olds declined 21 percent from 1997 to 1999, a strong sign that an education-based strategy is working. Over the past three years, total youth drug use is down 34 percent. Drug-related murders are at their lowest point in over a decade.
Other areas cry out for improvement.
Illegal drugs are cheaper and more plentiful in this country than ever, despite concerted interdiction efforts. Nearly 4 million adults use 75 percent of the cocaine and heroin in the US.
In the 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations campaigned to make drug policy "tougher." The country has stuck with that approach, including life sentences for petty dealers. But increasingly critics argue for more health-oriented drug policies instead of more imprisonment. Drug courts, where an individual can choose between treatment and prison, are a step in that direction.
The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy acknowledges that a better job should be done to educate Americans about drug treatment, and why and how it can cut crime.
It's doubtful the US can arrest its way out of the illegal drug challenge, or rehabilitate its way out. An approach that equally targets both supply and demand makes the most sense.
The challenge remains immense. Illegal drug trafficking represents 8 percent of all international trade. In Europe, where cocaine use is rising, and in other countries, such as China, the US can do much more to form antitrafficking alliances and share law- enforcement information.
Moreover, the assertion that Colombia (where cocaine production is up 140 percent in the past three years), is a Vietnam-in-the-making needs greater perspective. The Colombia Plan, which calls for a 50 percent reduction in drug production there over the next five years, is worth US financial and military support. Past successes cutting coca production in Peru and Bolivia offer hope.
Finding the most effective programs, whether enforcement or treatment, and replicating them makes for sound policy. So does involving the community. Drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey has rightly decided most of the "war" needs to be fought in the trenches, at the neighborhood level. He wants to achieve a 50 percent decrease in drug use by 2007. New grants to form community coalitions made up of parents, teachers, ministers, coaches, law enforcement, and the media should help form more drug-resistant future generations.
Amid the smoke of battle, a persistently applied, long-term strategy remains the best way to combat drugs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society