America is losing its battle against the use and sale of illegal drugs.
A recent series of arrests of alleged major dealers in illegal drugs has only dented what has become one of the nation's largest, though illicit, industries, according to top federal law-enforcement officials.
Federal seizures of cocaine and heroin during the first nine months of this year are greater than all of last year, and the rate of marijuana seizures is running ahead of last year's.
But latest federal data also indicate that regular use of these drugs is probably increasing, as it did throughout most of the 1970s.
The illicit drug ''industry'' is so pervasive - involving an enormous, and shifting, network of dealers and millions of American adult, teen-age, and even preteen users - that a wide variety of law enforcement officials and other experts see little hope of ever winning the battle against illegal drugs through arrests, even massive increases of arrests, in the United States.
They pin more hopes on US efforts to win the cooperation of foreign nations to curb the growing of crops which are the source of most of the illegal drugs coming in the US. Yet there are few signs that such efforts are having much effect. There are, instead, indications that the supplies from abroad are increasing.
The other hope most often expressed is that the demand for illegal drugs can be reduced - not by fear of arrest, which is not reducing the number of users - but by education as to the health effects and moral implications of using illegal drugs.
Repeatedly, in one form or another, officials and researchers are echoing the conviction of California's Steve Helsley, chairman of the national State Drug Enforcement Alliance, that the effort to combat illegal drug use ''has to start in the home.''
Most experts commenting on prevention applaud increasing efforts by parents to become informed about drug problems. But one researcher questions whether in their information gathering and lobbying, these parents spend enough time on the heart of the matter - face-to-face talks with their children, to listen to them and discuss drug issues.
In more than two dozen Monitor interviews with federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, including the acting director of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), criminologists, and social researchers, these other themes were predominant:
1. The scope of the drug problem in the US is much broader than many Americans realize.
''I think we're in an epidemic situation,'' says Joseph S. Dominelli, a recent past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and now chief of police of Rotterdam, N.Y.
The Reagan administration has made the illicit drug trade and organized crime's involvement with it the main target of federal law-enforcement efforts.
2.Planned increases in federal drug enforcement agents will probably make only a slightly larger dent in the problem. The illicit profits are so huge that they quickly attract new dealers to replace apprehended ones.
3. Greater efforts by the US are needed abroad to curb incoming supplies.
A minority viewpoint, expressed in some of the dozen or so research reports on drugs reviewed by this newspaper, calls for decreasing or eliminating criminal penalties against illicit drug use. These studies contend the battle against illegal drugs cannot be won and is only doing more harm than good by costing taxpayers a lot of money in enforcement; forcing users to commit more crimes to get more money for the drugs, especially when enforcement efforts limit the supplies and raise illicit drug prices; and leaving a blot on the employment record of young users convicted of drug offenses.
Though seldom discussed in such terms, each time someone uses illegal drugs, he is linking himself to covert supply systems that depend on greed, threats, corruption of public officials, and often violence, including murder.
Yet either this fact is not recognized, or it makes little difference to the millions of Americans who hand over billions of dollars each year to illicit drug dealers. And some studies show that the threat of arrest is not a major deterrent either to dealers or users.
The Reagan administration is asking Congress to fund up to 1,200 additional federal agents for drug investigations across the US. The FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration have begun to work closer together.
''All of the resources of the federal government . . . have been brought together,'' presidential counselor Edwin Meese III told a recent gathering of the nation's police chiefs, to fight the ''invasion'' of drugs in the US.
But the resources are limited - and in fact are being reduced - in areas such as prevention and treatment programs. Prevention funds, for example, have been cut by 16 to 55 percent, depending on how states use federal block grants. And the prevention and treatment research budgets of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) have been cut to ''practically zero,''according to officials.
The Reagan administration is instead relying heavily on private organizations to prepare drug information and distribute it.
Federal funding for international efforts against drugs has remained steady, a top DEA official says. But there has been a ''steady decline '' in the number of DEA agents since 1980, says acting DEA director Francis Mullens Jr..
Mr. Mullens comes to his new post from a career in the FBI. In an interview here, he summarized what he learned from a 22-day overseas trip he and Attorney General William French Smith made recently to try to urge other countries to slow the flow of drugs out of their nations to the US.
In Thailand and Pakistan, some eradication of opium poppies has been carried out, but officials there said they have little control over its growth in remote tribal areas. Very little information is available about Iran and Afghanistan due to their current political situations, he said.
Here in the US, the corrupting influence of the vast sums of money in the illicit drug trade has ''pervaded every facet of our federal system,'' Mullens says. He cited indictments of a DEA agent, an FBI agent, and of a federal judge on drug charges. The list of state and local law enforcement and other public officials convicted on drug offenses grows longer and longer.
Mullens is confident that the addition of some 1,100 to 1,200 federal drug agents to work in 12 task forces across the US will help in the battle against top drug dealers and financers. ''We haven't won it [the battle] yet; I don't think we've even stabilized it yet,'' he said.
Then he added: ''Enforcement is only part of the effort. We've got to cut out the demand.''
G. Robert Blakey, a Notre Dame law professor and expert on organized crime, says the record of federal agents catching major dealers is ''not that bad.'' It could be better with more agents, but even a ''massive increase'' would not ''turn around the drug problem,'' he says.
The Reagan task forces are not likely to have much impact and will be mostly ''moving people around,'' he said.
Demand for drugs might be reduced if some Hollywood stars and athletes quit using drugs, and didn't glamorize them, he said. Meanwhile, drug offenders should be given longer sentences, said Professor Blakey.
Even the recent string of major ''busts'' (arrests) of drug dealers is ''not terribly important,'' says Christopher P. Gershel, police chief in Newburgh, N.Y. ''Someone is willing to take the place [as a dealer] of the person arrested immediately, because so much money is involved,'' he says. But convicted major traffickers should be imprisoned for life without parole, he said.
The world of drug dealers is one of murder, stashed drugs in vans, duffel bags, safes. It is a well-equipped world of fast planes, big ships, small boats, clandestine marijuana fields in the US. It involves bribed officials and threatened rural residents at clandestine air strips.
The enforcement world working against them is one of dedicated officers often risking their lives, spending days and months patiently on undercover assignments - posing as buyers and dealers, building confidences within the world of illicit dealers.
Local police are criticized for not going after major dealers, one police chief explained. But, he said, local police lack the money to make big purchases of drugs to set up dealers for an arrest. The ones with the most 'buy'' money are the federal agents. But in some cases they have not worked closely with local enforcement officers, as in Atlanta, says Eldrin Bell, a high-ranking police official here.
State and local drug enforcement officials are concerned about possible lack of coordination between the new federal task forces and themselves. FBI Director William Webster says details have not been worked out, but he intends to see that there is good coordination.
The federal seizures of drugs represent ''only a fraction of the illegal drugs actually imported and distributed within this country,'' says Mr. Webster. The DEA estimates that only about 10 percent of all illicit drugs and 3 to 5 percent of all heroin sold in the US are seized, according to Professor Blakey.
Illegal drug sales at the retail or street level totaled an estimated $79 billion in 1980, an increase of about 50 percent from 1977, according to the DEA.
A related problem is the crimes committed by addicts. In a study of 243 heroin addicts in Baltimore, it was found that they each committed about 180 offenses a year - most often theft and drug sales, says Temple University sociology Prof. John C. Ball, one of the researchers.
But federal efforts to control drug offenses have become ''a political football,'' he said. There is ''lack of a comprehensive program from one administration to the next.''
There are preliminary findings from another study that heavy users of amphetamines, barbituates, and alcohol commit more violent assaults than other drug users, says James Collins. Dr. Collins, one of those studying such effects, is a sociologist at Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina.
Are there any effective deterents to the use and dealing of illict drugs?
Many officials and parents hope information about the drugs will persuade youth not to use them. But mixed signals are coming from federal studies on the most widely used illicit drug: marijuana.
In July this year, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences recommended repeal of criminal penalties for use of marijuana. The president of the academy rejected the findings. In 1972 President Nixon's National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse called for abolition of certain penalties for marijuana use. A number of states have reduced their marijuana penalties.
In a statement this year, C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general of the US, said that among the ''known or suspected chronic effects'' of marijuana use are: impaired memory, learning, breathing difficulties, and possible damage to the heart and reproductive system.
A 1978-79 study of college students found that most weren't discouraged from dealing in illicit drugs because of fear of arrest. The reason most often given for their quitting was a strain on their relations with others as a result of dealing, according to researchers Barry Fish and Keith Bruhnsen.
Another study found that legal threats were a ''comparatively impotent source of compliance with marijuana laws'' among adults. What inhibited use was age, fear of physical consequences of use, and the belief that marijuana use is immoral, according to researchers Robert F. Meier and Weldon T. Johnson.
There has been a slight decline in marijuana use and a general leveling off of use of most other illict drugs by high school seniors over the past several years, according to national surveys. This encourages some researchers to speculate that the tide may be turning. But use of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana has been increasing among adults during the 1970s and appears to be increasing in the 1980s, according to preliminary data.
One researcher cautions that the preliminary data (reports of hospital emergency cases involving drugs) are frequently just signs that impure drugs are being sold, not that users have increased. But even he said he strongly suspects use of at least cocaine is increasing.
And the number of heroin addicts in New York City has increased some 50 percent since 1978, to more than 163,000, according to a study headed by former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr.
One strategy that holds promise for turning children away from illicit drug use is one used to dissuade students from smoking, William J. Bukoski, the deputy chief of prevention programs for NIDA, wrote earlier this year. In a study, junior high school students were taught how to resist pressure from their friends to smoke. They were given health information, trained in role playing to resist pressure, and taught how to be more discerning about cigarette advertising. According to reports from the students, participants in the program smoked at least 50 percent less than nonparticipants in the following two years.
But NIDA funding to pursue research such as this has been nearly eliminated. States may pursue such research with block grants, but the funds compete with demands from alcohol and mental health programs.
Meanwhile, there are other indications of increasing drug problems. In a recent article the New York Times described a ''pervasive'' use of drugs among actors and actresses in Hollywood. The death of actor John Belushi in March was reportedly due to an overdose of cocaine and heroin. More than two years ago Richard Pryor was badly injured in an incident involing cocaine.
Newsweek magazine's Oct. 25 cover story was on the upsurge in clandestine growing of marijuana in the US. Although some states such as Georgia and Hawaii have enlisted the help of their National Guard units to combat drugs, marijuana fields are hard to spot and growers are elusive.
But the number of parents groups dedicated to steering their children away from illict drugs continues to grow.
Also needed are elementary school programs to begin to educate children about their choices concerning drugs - programs that ''present both sides,'' not ones based on fear, says Ira Cisin, director of the Social Research Group at George Washington University.
But ''we can't just buck it all to the schools,'' he says. Such discussions must begin at home. ''Most people are rejecting it (drugs),'' he said. ''It's our one ray of hope.''
No. of users of illegal drugs in US Ages 1972 1974 1976 1979 Marijuana 12-17 1,800,000 3,000,000 3,100,000 4,000,000 18 & over 11,600,000 10,200,000 11,600,000 18,600,000 Cocaine 12-17 151,000 251,000 251,000 200,000 18 & over 1,300,000 1,000,000 1,000,000 4,100,000 Heroin 12-17 151,000 251,000 126,000 100,000 18 & over 1,900,000 1,900,000 1,700,000 2,500,000
Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse household surveys, in which respondents are not identified by name.
1980-81 NIDA* data 1980 1981 Drug-related emergency hospital cases: Marijuana 4,258 4,300 Cocaine 3,926 4,449 Heroin 8,082 9,037
1979 1980 Heroin-related deaths 141 250 Cocaine-related deaths 619 859 * National Institute on Drug Abuse
Federal seizures of illegal drugs (in pounds) 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982* Cocaine 1,759 2,621 7,652 4,353 9,871 Heroin 760 408 506 333 466 Marijuana** 2.6 1.5 1.6 1.9 1.7 Other drugs*** 12 29.3 36.2 105.2 8.3 * first nine months ** millions of pounds *** (millions of doses)
Source: Drug Enforcement Administration data compiled for the Monitor, representing nearly all seizures by any federal agencies.