Reagan war on dope: how effective in the long run?

The Reagan administration is pulling out the stops in its declared war on drugs. But it remains to be seen whether this week's nation-wide marijuana eradication campaign deals a lasting blow to the underground network of increasingly violent marijuana smugglers and growers.

``It is nothing but a press setup. It is nothing but a photo opportunity,'' says Burt Neal of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Mr. Neal, whose group advocates the legalization of marijana, says: ``We are glad they are doing it because it will only point up further the failure of the war on marijuana.''

But administration officials defend their three-day blitz -- code named Delta 9 -- as both necessary and effective.

``We are definitely making a dent,'' says Carlton E. Turner, special assistant to President Reagan for drug abuse policy.

By midweek, law-enforcement officials had located and destroyed some 340,000 pounds of marijuana on more than 2,000 plots scattered across the country. Some of the marijuana was being grown in national forests and parks. Some of it was being protected with crude booby traps. At locations in Michigan and Kentucky bear traps had been set.

In northern California, a marijuana grower apparently concerned about intruders, installed sharpened punji sticks at the bottom of a concealed pit. Elsewhere in northern California a police helicopter was riddled with bullet holes. Another police helicopter near Ben Hur, Ark., ``took some ground fire,'' as one official put it.

There have been no injuries so far among the estimated 2,200 local, state, and federal officials combing the nation's forests and back trails in search of clandestine marijuana fields. By Wednesday officials had made 175 arrests and seized 73 weapons.

Marijuana growers in the US have been put on notice. In addition, Delta 9 has sent a message loud and clear to certain Latin American nations that the US is prepared to carry out, within its own borders, the same kinds of vigorous drug eradication efforts American officials have advocated in Mexico and Colombia for years.

The Delta 9 operation also comes at a time when the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is considering a new policy permitting the use of chemical herbicides to help destroy marijuana fields.

The use of herbicides has been largely restricted in the US in part because of public outcry in the late 1970s when it became known that marijuana smugglers in Mexico were harvesting and selling marijuana sprayed by Mexican authorities with the herbicide Paraquat. Marijuana users -- familiar with the Agent Orange Vietnam veteran controversy -- are concerned about possible health effects of marijuana tainted with herbicides.

DEA officials say it is often more cost effective and safer for law-enforcement authorities to destroy marijuana fields in remote locations with aerial spraying of herbicides.

This week's graphic demonstration of the dangers of marijuana eradication may help bolster the DEA's case for wider use of herbicides in the US.

On a broader front, the nationwide crackdown was intended to counter a noticeable increase in recent years in domestic cultivation of marijuana.

The recent rise in ``home grown'' marijuana came as an effort to make up for an apparent shortfall in US supply caused by increasingly successful marijuana eradication and interdiction efforts by the governments of Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, and Belize.

The DEA estimates between 12,600 and 15,000 metric tons of marijuana are available in a given year to the roughly 22 million Americans said to be regular users.

Neal of NORML estimates 200,000 Americans are involved in the cultivation of marijuana. He says a NORML survey last year showed the US marijuana crop to be worth $16.6 billion.

Law-enforcement officials admit that they are facing no small task in eradicating US marijuana cultivation, but they say public opinion on the issues is definitely shifting their way.

``We have not only seen a major change in the opinion of the United States, but we have seen a major change in the world opinion,'' says Turner.

``We are doing better than anyone anticipated a few years ago.''

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