The fight against illegal drug abuse has gained a new and unique ally - pharmaceutical companies.
While President Reagan wound up a two-day visit in Miami with the 10 -month-old, anti-drug-smuggling South Florida Task Force, the federal volunteer agency Action, in conjunction with First Lady Nancy Reagan, was launching its latest drug prevention effort. Pharmacists Against Drug Abuse (PADA), a $125,000 drug education campaign sponsored by a major pharmaceutical company in cooperation with Action, has been launched in three New England states.
In Miami, Mr. Reagan praised the the task force, which he credited with dealing a crippling blow to the underground drug economy there. He said he hopes such work would ''break the power of the mob in America.'' Twelve other regional operations, based on the Florida project, are being planned.
The New England program, a four-month pilot project financed primarily by McNeil Pharmaceutical, is touted as the first major private initiative in the White House drug prevention campaign. ''This is the most significant private-sector initiative we've seen in the past year and half,'' says Action director Tom Pauken. If the effort succeeds, the program will be continued in other areas.
The aim of the program, according to McNeil president Jack E. O'Brien, is ''to get accurate drug information distributed as widely as possible.'' Local pharmacies were selected for their accessibility to communities and because, ''community pharmacists are recognized as experts on drugs and credible sources for that type of information.''
But some observers questioned the appropriateness of using a drug manufacturer in an antidrug campaign. And others called the venture more a public relations move than anything substantive. ''It's obviously to the drug company's advantage to help the public sort out the distinction between illegal and legal drug use,'' said one observer.
About 1,200 pharmacies in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine will receive 600,000 informational booklets and brochures to be distributed to parents interested in learning about juvenile drug abuse. The program's aim, however, ''isn't simply to distribute the brochures,'' Mr. O'Brien says, ''but to get the parents involved.''
Dr. Carlton Turner, director of the White House Drug Abuse Policy Office, emphasizes the brochures will deal primarily with ''gateway drugs that kids start on first,'' alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. ''Over one-third of all kids in the country (try) illegal drugs,'' contends Dr. Turner, ''and 1 out of every 14 high school seniors uses marijuana daily.''
''There is an absolute need for accurate health information on the most widely abused illegal drugs,'' adds O'Brien. ''If this program is successful and forces kids back into the medicine chest, we will have taken a great leap forward.'' He amended the remark to imply opposition to illegal drug-dealing and that prescription drug use is easier to control.
But critics pointed out that prescription drugs are among the most commonly abused drugs in the country. ''Over 60 percent of all drugs on the street are prescription drugs,'' said Bill McCue, director of a Greater Boston drug rehabilitation facility. ''Those are the drugs within the drug companies purview and that's what they should be addressing.''
A recent study by the General Accounting Office shows abuse of prescription drugs causes far more deaths than does illegal drug use. ''Fifteen of the top 20 most commonly abused drugs are prescription drugs,'' says GAO audit manager Peter Stathis. ''Everyone tends to highlight illegal drug abuse and we felt it was important to show that legally obtained drugs actually do greater harm.'' The study, compiling reports from the Drug Abuse Warning Network for 1980, listed valium as the most commonly abused drug.