The illegal ''drug culture'' used to be a subterranean, outcast segment of American and European society. But research on both sides of the Atlantic shows the use and toleration of illegal drugs - marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and many others - spreading into all levels of society. The effects on health, work, safety, and personal relationships have often been found to be devastating. How can the Western world keep from becoming one big drug culture?
It will take nothing less than societies and individuals looking at what they are doing to themselves - and saying, ''Enough!''
Is this a wildly unrealistic prospect when a relentless trend of drug abuse and acceptance seems to be in motion?
Not if the history of another devastating trend in human self-destruction is considered. For years, indeed centuries, human beings have abused their natural environment, harming themselves by harming their land, water, and air. How lonely the 19th-century conservationists seemed. How strong the movement to preserve the environment became when people finally saw what they were wreaking on the resources of their planet.
A similar turnaround can hardly be beyond possibility when the issue is preservation of human resources themselves from the encroaching environment of drugs.
Just how serious the challenge is may be gathered not only from the general run of news but from several recent studies. Last year, for example, the Council of Europe held a conference in Strasbourg on a virtual epidemic of drug abuse in a Europe that had once thought this to be mainly North America's problem. This week, in a roundup of the views of social scientists, the New York Times reports a growing social toleration of illegal drugs among older Americans even as their use among younger Americans remains on the decline.
In both Europe and America the resort to illegal drugs is linked to a climate in which pills and nostrums are assumed to be available for virtually every human ill. Some people go from seeking relief of pain to pursuing transitory pleasure. A disposition to handle problems with artificial means is fostered. It can be a short step to illegal artificial means.
The Council of Europe warned against treatment of addiction that ''medicates the problem without solving it.'' In the atmosphere of a drug for everything it cautioned against dangerous models of parental evasion of responsibility.
In the US only 4 percent of the population had tried an illegal drug two decades ago. Now more than 30 percent of Americans over 12 have done so. Young people in America are still believed to use more drugs than those anywhere else in the industrial world. But studies have shown a decline each year for the past several years. Reasons are thought to be concern for health, peer pressure, and good grades for a tightened job market.
If young Americans can begin this kind of reversal, they should have the full support of their elders rather than the present ironic example of increased adult drug abuse and acceptance. Some adults indeed have been doing yeoman work in groups to reduce and prevent youthful drug abuse. There have been heartening instances of enlisting young people shoulder to shoulder with them.
All the necessary legal efforts to control the drug traffic will leave the problem unsolved so long as there is a willing market in a climate of social toleration. Cleansing the environment of these insidious agents of corruption will require more and more people marching shoulder to shoulder as they have done to say thus far and no farther in the destruction of the natural world.