Readers of this newspaper who responded to a mid-December poll are divided on the best ways to fight the tidal wave of illicit drug traffic and abuse building up around the globe.
The need to reduce the individual's desire for drugs, by changes in religious or moral attitudes or by educational campaigns, was recognized by almost half the respondents.
In a five-part series on the fight against drugs which appeared in these pages in December, experts considered campaigns to reduce the demand for drugs to be the key long-term solution.
More antidrug education and an end to United States subsidies for the tobacco industry were urged by one-third of the respondents. Stricter law enforcement was suggested by one-quarter, including a strong emphasis on providing more detector dogs to sniff baggage and freight at airports and seaports.
One-fifth wanted more money given to the United Nations, with only a few opposing. Some favored more government aid to private groups to fight the demand for drugs, while 1 in 5 objected, mainly on the grounds that big government is too big already and that people can do the job themselves if they really want to do so.
However, almost 1 in 3 argued that the most effective method would be to legalize possession - within a framework of tougher penalties against trafficking.
Readers who favor making drugs legal draw a parallel with the Prohibition era in the US. The prohibition against alcohol was repealed because it simply did not work, they say, and now liquor is regulated, controlled, and taxed.
Similarly, it is argued, proper legalizing of drugs would provide tax revenue that could be used, in part, for antidrug campaigns directed at young people. It would allow control of the quality of drugs available and would remove the enormous profits traffickers now make.
Since the number of respondents was small (54) and the sample may not be representative of public opinion, the actual numbers are of little significance. But the views expressed in the letters may well typify the variety of approaches to the problem of drugs and drug abuse. In particular, the proportion of those advocating legalization could indicate that a substantial segment of US public opinion feels the same way.
Almost all the letters were seriously argued, clearly expressed, and reflected considerable time and thought.
Many readers responded to the eight suggestions in the questionnaire which had been raised by experts contacted for the Monitor series. Legalization was not among them.
But 17 of the 54 readers raised the issue anyway. Sixteen of them said they would keep penalties high on trafficking but would remove them from personal use.
Only one, Dennis A. Palmer of St. Louis, who described himself as a special agent in the US Customs Service for 14 years, raised the issue to shoot it down.
Mr. Palmer said, ''Some of the recent efforts to decriminalize 'mere' possession of marijuana, etc., add to the problem. . . . The possessor, the abuser, the seller, the trafficker, the producer are all equally guilty in the conspiracy to make drugs available and should be punished accordingly. . . .'
No one suggested legalization without some controls. Sale should be ''controlled by prescription and restricted to adults,'' wrote attorney John Payne of Wyandotte, Mich. ''Substances which produce dependency should be made available at low cost to addicts registered with a clinic, for personal use only.''
But how, experts ask, could drugs made available in these ways be kept from the black market and used without prescriptions?
''Tobacco, alcohol, handguns, and international weapons systems are all within the law,'' wrote Richard T. Hart of Watsonville, Calif. ''That doesn't solve the problems. . . . But it goes a long way toward controlling them. . . .'
Meanwhile, on other issues:
* Providing more sniffer dogs is favored by some. More thorough searches at airports and seaports were favored by 6 of the 10 readers who commented directly on the topic.
''Why not take good, unwanted dogs from shelters and pounds . . . and train them?'' asked Mrs. A.G. Morgan of Belleair, Fla.
Schools, Boys Clubs, 4-H Clubs, Girl Scouts, and other groups of children could raise money to sponsor dogs, suggested Sandra Clair Corbett of Richmond, Va. Adult groups - corporations, labor unions, social organizations - could then underwrite the necessary training.
Evelyn Pollard of Laguna Hills, Calif., agreed that children's imaginations could be fired by being involved with dogs. She suggested young dogs be trained to locate drugs instead of being used for vivi-section.
* A significant number favored more education to reduce demand for drugs.
''Parents and children should be instructed on how to be firm about what they know is right: and not to take in what they hear and see others do,'' wrote Leon Isler of Coquille, Ore.
Finally, readers came up with a number of interesting ideas on their own.
* Offer complete treatment and rehabilitation free of charge to any victim who agrees to point the finger at the dealer who sold him drugs.
This comes from Stuart Basefsky of Durham, N.C., who said he hopes to set up a chain reaction: ''Buyer turns in dealer who turns in ringleader.''
Mr. Basefsky also suggested a ''super-fund'' that would make the pharmaceutical industry pay for rehabilitating addicts because of doctors who over-prescribe.
* Each student should visit a prison to talk firsthand to drug offenders, or each ex-offender should visit a school or work place, said Cynthia Howarth Loeser, PhD, of Anchorage, Alas.
* Mrs. R. Venning of Bristol, England, asked if biochemists could find a ''pest'' that could destroy the drug-producing plants in South America. She also thought sugar cane could be substituted on a larger scale for opium poppies in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and be converted to gasoline as in Brazil.
* Governments ought to ''buy up the cash drug crops in poor countries the way the US buys up surplus cheese and milk (instead of making it illegal to produce) ,'' suggests J.P. Sullivan, professor of classics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Dennis Palmer summed up:
''The answer has to lie in a desire by the individual for something better than drug abuse. This has to come about through thorough education. . . . I suppose the real answer has to be a return by the majority to basic religious principles. . . .''