Acting on drugs: enforcement

THROUGHOUT the United States the scene is being relentlessly played out these days: Drug traffickers are offering a veritable supermarket of illicit products to their customers, ranging from ``crack'' (smokable cocaine), to sinsemilla (derived from marijuana), to black tar heroin, the most dangerous product of all. Older forms of illegal drugs are widely available. At the same time, other dealers are selling so-called ``designer drugs'' made in clandestine laboratories; these drugs are modified versions of legally controlled drugs. The recognition is growing that the nation's drug challenge -- although not new -- may be spiraling out of control as illegal drug products become cheaper and more readily available. Millions of Americans have experimented with cocaine.

Today's drug user is as likely to be found in a middle-class or upper-income suburb as in an inner-city ghetto. Part of the new challenge is technological: Refinements in drug processing, as well as a decentralization in criminal networks, have enabled dealers to sell products such as crack for as little as $5 to $10 a fix. Operating out of so-called safe houses, crack processing ``kitchens'' can be set up in almost any sheltered location and moved quickly to avoid the police.

Clearly, meeting the nation's drug challenge involves forging a broad range of responses, from antidrug education programs in schools, community groups, and churches to more-comprehensive law enforcement techniques.

In subsequent editorials we will deal with such issues as society's role in curbing drug abuse, as well as the part family and friends can play in helping people struggling with drug dependency. On the broader enforcement front, however, a number of steps are in order:

Congress and the White House should provide better funding for federal agencies dealing with drugs or drug-linked criminal networks -- the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Given the magnitude of the challenge, this is not the moment to scrimp on antidrug budgets.

The US-Mexico border has become the main entry point for many of the illegal drugs smuggled into the US. But merely adding additional police or using questionable methods of apprehension -- including use of the Pentagon -- will not alone suffice. Washington needs to enact an immigration reform law that makes it difficult for aliens to obtain jobs in the US. If the numbers of illegal aliens could be reduced (with 1.8 million illegals now estimated to be apprehended this year alone), border guards would have more to expend on curbing drug smuggling.

Local law enforcement agencies need to develop specialized antidrug teams, as New York is now doing in seeking to identify and apprehend crack dealers.

Congress should seriously consider enacting legislation, such as that just proposed in the Senate, that would provide tough new penalties for the sale and use of crack. At the least, employing minors in sales of crack should be sharply penalized.

Rivalries and jurisdictional disputes among law enforcement agencies need to be curbed. Comprehensive federal, state, and local antidrug teams should be established, just as such teams have been successfully deployed against organized-crime groups in the US. There should be a nationwide plan of assistance between state and local law enforcement agencies dealing with lethal drugs, such as crack. First in a five-part series

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