A trade barrier Reagan favors -- against illicit drugs

They sneak onto the Florida coastline in small boats, landing at night, or in planes touching down at clandestine airstrips along the East Coast.

Their illict cargos of marijuana and cocaine are quickly unloaded into vans, cars, and trucks. Or they try to pass through regular entry ports undetected by US Customs agents, using every conceivable deception . . .

It is all part of what has become one of the nation's largest industries - illegal drugs. Federal officials estimate that the value of this industry ranges upwards of $75 billion a year. But no one knows for sure. As a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official in Miami says, no one knows what percentage of the illicit drugs are intercepted.

Against this wave of crime, much of it organized by professionals (though usually not by the traditional ''mob'' types), President Reagan has joined a list of several past presidents in declaring war on the illegal drug dealers.

But his recent pre-election call for the establishment of 12 task forces across the country, staffed by some 1,100 federal agents, has raised a number of questions.

Though strongly welcomed by law enforcement officials and others, critics say the President's plan:

1. Does not make clear if the 1,100 agents to be named will raise the total of federal agents involved in drug enforcement.

Rep. Leo C. Zefretti (D) of New York, chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics, says he is ''pleased'' with the President's announcement. But he adds that the Reagan administration has sought to eliminate approximately 2,000 US Customs agents. Customs agents are part of the front-line defense against illegal drug imports. Cutting 2,000 of them and adding 1,100 task-force agents (mostly from the FBI and DEA and Customs, and including additional prosecutors) would reduce the federal effort by 900 persons.

2. The Reagan administration has nearly eliminated all spending on federal programs aimed at preventing drug abuse. Proponents of such efforts say that unless a greater attempt is made to reduce demand, drug dealers will find a way to meet it.

3. The Reagan administration contends it is pressing hard to persuade foreign nations that are sources of drugs entering the US to reduce the supply. But congressional critics and others see little evidence of this and contend more needs to be done.

The task force plan is ''a good idea,'' says Richard J. Brzeczek, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. But, he says, going after dealers is ''like trying to take a blotter and dry up the ocean.'' Greater US efforts are needed, he says, to stem the supply of drugs to the US. ''You've got to shut off the pipe,'' he says.

There is some concern that stepped-up federal efforts to catch organized, high-level drug dealers may detract from the nation's efforts to crackdown on the more traditional organized crime.

Some investigators in the Justice Department are concerned that many of the new special drug task-force jobs will be filled by people now working cases against traditional organized crime. Even if the vacancies created were filled with newly hired people, the level of experience would drop substantially.

This would be a ''bonanza for organized crime in the traditional sense,'' says a congressional staffer familiar with drug issues.

But the task forces are ''a very good idea and much needed,'' says Larry Thompson, US attorney in Atlanta.

DEA officials explain that although most major drug dealers are not part of organized crime in the traditional ''mob'' sense, most are well-organized. These include, they say, Columbians and Cubans in South Florida, some motorcycle and prison gangs and other Americans who smuggle and distribute drugs in the US.

Congressional sources predict that Congress will easily approve money for the task forces - estimated by the administration at $160 million to $200 million a year. White House drug issues adviser Carlton Turner says this would come from funds already appropriated by Congress.

He also insists that federal cuts in drug abuse prevention programs were justified because they were not successful and that private groups could do them better. (A federal official familiar with the federal prevention effort says it was ''never really'' given much of a chance.)

The proposed switching of funds to pay for the task forces has some in Congress puzzled. They do not know where the money will come from and are concerned it may be needed for the uses for which it was first appropriated.

The task forces are to be modeled after the one now operating out of Miami under the direction of Vice-President George Bush. That effort has had ''a pretty good success rate'' on slowing the flow of marijuana into the US from Columbia, says Miami DEA special-agent-in-charge Peter Gruden.

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