Filling Voids Drugs Can't

Washington's chief antidrug official has the unenviable job of bringing some sense to the multipronged, $19 billion program loosely referred to as the "war on drugs."

For the past four years that "war" has been conducted by a bona fide former general, Barry McCaffrey, who brought great energy and military discipline to the job.

But he didn't, of course, "win" the war. That was no fault of his. He initiated some promising new tactics, such as more-effective advertising aimed at youth. He came to recognize that greater emphasis was needed on preventing and reducing the demand for drugs than on curbing their flow into the United States.

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Drug-use statistics remain disturbing. Cocaine and heroin use is still high. And new problems, such as the rise of the so-called party drug Ecstasy, have sprouted.

The command now shifts to a Bush appointee, John P. Walters. With the shift, the nation has an opportunity to reconsider the country's antidrug strategy. (See story on page 2.)

The "war" analogy is wearing thin. That terminology always has evoked images of police raids on crack houses or bombing raids on coca fields in Latin America. It has meant sweeping up narcotics users and sending them to prison with mandatory sentences. But the attempt to raid and arrest America's drug problem into surrender has failed. Many states are now rethinking their harsh sentencing laws for drug users.

Tactics like interdiction are still needed, though they're insufficient. The primary focus must be on giving people the moral courage to avoid drugs and ending the addiction for those already hooked.

Individuals who think drugs fill a void in their lives must be invited to fill that void with something immeasurably better - better relationships, more-enriching work, more education, and loving family and community support. To help this, President Bush hopes to support the antidrug work of faith-based social services.

In announcing Mr. Walter's appointment, Mr. Bush aptly noted: "the most important work to reduce drug use is done in America's livingrooms and classrooms, in churches, in synagogues and mosques, in the workplace, and in our neighborhoods." He also said he would "focus unprecedented attention on the demand side of this problem." That means more and better drug treatment. Today, most treatment programs have long waiting lists. Only about half of the 5 million chronic drug users who need treatment can find it.

Bush proposes increasing federal funding for drug treatment by $1.6 billion over the next five years. That's a good start, and state and local funding should be boosted, too.

Treatment isn't a mechanical process. Much depends on the individuals' inner readiness to kick the habit - and on the advice they receive.

Walters has warned that children often lack the moral environment that would keep them off drugs. That means he'll likely focus on both the recreational use of "softer" drugs as well as hard-drug use. And he's in favor of treatment "that works." But he's also known for stressing tougher law enforcement and interdiction.

The new antidrug chief has an opportunity to shift the balance between the use of threats and the use of incentives in the "war on drugs."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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