The long distance America has still to travel in its drive against drug abuse has been underscored in recent weeks with allegations of drug use in two highly visible areas: Congress and professional sports.
Responding to charges of drug use and sexual misconduct among members of Congress, the House Ethics Committee has begun a formal investigation involving a special counsel with expanded subpoena powers. A federal grand jury is also looking into charges of drug distribution on Capitol Hill.
And officials of the National Football League (NFL) have conceded, after several recent public disclosures of drug addiction and trafficking among players, that the integrity of the game has indeed been threatened. A grand jury investigation into drug dealing by several New Orleans Saints players is currently under way in Louisiana. And the House Select Committee on Narcotics, while backing off from its original intent to conduct hearings, has promised to hold private meetings with league officials and players to assess the allegations. In addition, the NFL is claiming it has the right to physically examine players for drug use at any time.
While charges of illegal drug use among particular professional groups are not uncommon, the recent allegations solely involve cocaine and serve to underscore once again the drug's rising popularity.
At $100-plus per gram, cocaine was formerly found only among the moneyed elite. But as perceptions of cocaine as a relatively low-health-risk drug and an emblem of wealth and status grew, cocaine has become one of the most popular illegal drugs among America's middle class. Both enforcement officials and independent reseachers report increased cocaine use across the country.
''There are an estimated 15 million regular cocaine users in this country,'' says UCLA psychoparmachologist Ronald Siegel, ''and their numbers are rising dramatically.'' Not only are the numbers of cocaine users on the rise, but observers assert the dosages are going up as well. ''Prior (to) 1977 people snorted (inhaled) an average of one to four grams per month,'' says Siegel, ''but now one to three grams per day is not uncommon.''
US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials also report an increased appetite for the drug. In 1980, Americans consumed approximately $30 billion worth of cocaine or 44 metric tons - nearly double the amount consumed the previous year, according to DEA estimates. Seizures of the drug also are up dramatically. After two record-breaking cocaine confiscations this spring, federal seizures thru May of this year already surpass total confiscations in 1981.
In light of the reports now surfacing over the use of cocaine in professional sports, the NFL has admitted drug use in professional football ''may be more severe now than in society in general,'' according to a league spokesman.
The league's assistant director of security and drug abuse, Charles Jackson, has publicly estimated that hundreds of the league's 1,500 players have used cocaine and other drugs, many of them regularly. To date, the league reports that nearly 30 players, confidentially admitting cocaine dependency, have come forward for rehabilitation. Other sources contend that at least five or six pro football teams have serious cocaine problems.
Don Reese, a former defensive lineman for three NFL teams who served a year in prison for selling cocaine to undercover police, charged in a recent Sports Illustrated article that cocaine had ''dominated'' his life and now ''controls and corrupts the game.'' The cocaine threat to the integrity of professional sports, say league officials, is that ultimately a player will wind up playing for the drug and not to win.
''It's the highest priced drug on the market,'' says Jackson, ''and many players regularly using the drug reach economic blowout.'' Asking for salary advances or trying to renegotiate their contracts are not uncommon ways for players to deal with their drug debts, according to Jackson.
But the most alarming methods, he says, ''are the lines of credit out on the street.'' What the league fears, ''is that one day those (credit) lines will be called in and a player could be in the position of throwing a game to cancel a drug debt,'' says Jackson. Many players were spending several thousand dollars a week on drugs.
Many observers agree that the growing practice among ball players of ''freebasing'' cocaine, a complex process that reduces the drug to an almost 100 percent purity, is why the problem is reaching such critical proportions now. Not only does freebasing intensify cocaine's effect, but it is a far more expensive method than simply inhaling the drug.
Despite the growing severity of the problem, some critics contend the NFL ultimately is more concerned with the image of the game than with the welfare of its players. ''The cynic in me says the NFL is just trying to shift the blame . . . and get everyone to stop talking about it,'' says former Viking defensive tackle Alan Page. ''The (drug) problem in the league is not that much different than any place else.''
The NFL Players Association currently is fighting the league's management council on a number of contractual points, including the right claimed by the league to physically test players for illegal drug use. Such a test, says a spokesman for the players association, ''implies mass guilt until proven innocent.''