In its war against an increasingly serious drug problem, the United States is about to call in the cavalry. Under legislation approved by the US House and Senate and favored by the Reagan administration, military services for the first time soon will be able to help civilian authorities track down and apprehend drug smugglers.
Once the expected official approval is obtained, armed forces personnel will be empowered to make drug arrests in certain instances, utilize expensive military equipment that is generally unavailable to civilian law-enforcement agencies, and train such agencies in the use of this equipment (including aircraft and radar).
Stretched thin in recent years and facing drug smugglers using state-of-the-art equipment (including some items not yet available to the Coast Guard and the US Customs Service), federal drug enforcement officials look forward to the proposed military assistance.
"It would help out a lot," says Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman David Hoover. "We have only 1,950 agents worldwide, including all of our foreign offices. We and Customs and the Coast Guard just can't do it all."
He cites as an example Navy antisubmarine patrol planes trained to spot "mother ships" bringing marijuana from South America. There also has been talk of using high-flying U-2 spy aircraft to locate and photograph marijuana fields.
The issue involves more than soldiers, sailors, airmen, and sophisticated military equipment. Under Reconstruction-era legislation, the military has generally been banned from joining in the enforcement of civilian laws. Such "posse comitatus" laws were meant to prevent a military police force -- specifically Union soldiers in the post-Civil War South -- from abusing their authority.
Some constitutional scholars and civil libertarians have expressed concern about what they see as an erosion of the line between military and civil authority.
But there have been exceptions to the law (enforcing civil-rights laws and keeping the peace during urban riots, for example) when it was felt necessary for the military to assist in enforcing civil law. Official Washington now sees drug smuggling as a similar special case.
Illicit drugs constitute an $80 billion business in the United States today, with about 70 percent of marijuana and cocaine flowing through Florida. State and local authorities find themselves often unable to cope with this mounting problem, particularly since it increasingly involves the use of highly advanced ships, aircraft, and other equipment.
"In my home state of Florida, smuggling has surpassed even tourism as the biggest industry and has spawned a massive network of organized crime which is out of control," says Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D), whose son died of a drug overdose and who sponsored changes in the "posse comitatus" law.
Mr. Bennet wanted military officials to be able to conduct searches and make arrests in drug-related cases in the United States. His colleagues on Capitol Hill have approved a somewhat more limited approach, but one which involves considerable military involvement in drugs control nonetheless.
As part of their anticrime-legislation package, Senate Democrats would allow the military to share intelligence information (the tracking of suspicious ships and airplanes, for example) with civilian agencies.
The House has amended the defense spending authorization bill to provide for military arrests and seizures in drug cases off US shores. The House action also provides for the use of military equipment within the United States by civilian drug-enforcement agencies.
"It does not allow the military to become a 'police force' for the nation," says Rep. Larry J. Hopkins (R) of Kentucky. "The Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Administration will still be the vanguards of the war on drugs. . . ."
The Reagan administration had been criticized for reducing drug-enforcement efforts by trimming Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Law Enforcement Assistance Administration budgets.
It apparently sees in its vastly increased Defense Department budget a way to defuse some of this criticism.