Drugs and the individual

LEN Bias, the basketball player who could jump through the roof, had everything going for him. He was in perfect health. He was an outstanding athlete. He was about to be received into the magical circle of the Boston Celtics.

Though fame and money could not ensure happiness, both lay within his grasp. A lifetime of satisfaction and fulfillment seemed ahead.

At 22, he cast all this away in a few seconds of stupidity designed to produce a few minutes of unnatural stimulation induced by cocaine.

Across the Atlantic, Olivia Channon, also 22, was talented and pretty, the daughter of a millionaire and British Cabinet minister.

She had been to prestigious Oxford University and it was in a room there, after celebrating the end of final examinations, that she was found dead after a binge on drugs and alcohol. Though apparently not a regular heroin user, she had the drug in her bloodstream.

The waste of any life and talent is tragic. The loss through drugs of young men and women on the brink of achievement is doubly so.

Why do they do it?

What can the rest of us do to help?

We can, of course, do more to mobilize against the big-time drug traffickers. There are thought to be some 6 million regular cocaine users in the United States. The main cocaine-producing countries are Bolivia and Colombia. The US could show those two countries that it really means business when it comes to stopping the export of cocaine.

The military could be used to supplement the thinly stretched resources of the Coast Guard and drug enforcement agencies. The Pentagon is not happy about this prospect; it believes its weapons should be kept sharply honed for war. Some would argue, however, that drugs pose as great a threat to national security as alien ideology and hostile rocketry.

Some have suggested tougher handling of convicted drug dealers. Columnist James J. Kilpatrick is quoted: ``Capital punishment may not be much of a deterrent against murder, but the sight of a few corpses swinging from a scaffold might work with drug dealers.''

More manpower and resources, improved techniques for interdiction of drug shipments, perhaps more draconian punishment -- all this might help cut down the flow of imported drugs.

But the problem will not, I think, be solved until individuals' appetite for drugs fades away. Some 15 years ago, I spent five months investigating the illegal narcotics traffic around the world. Since then, law enforcement agencies have improved. Old traffic patterns have been closed off, but new ones have opened up. Some of the old drugs are no longer so much in use, but different ones have supplanted them.

Fifteen years later, it still all comes back to the individual. I remember the musings of a United Nations official in Geneva: ``Programs to cut back drugs are important . . . but this is basically cops-and-robbers stuff.

``It all ends up with the user, the addict. The solution to his problem must be a metaphysical one. He has to work out the riddle: What is man? And can he find himself through drugs?''

At Len Bias's funeral, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said: ``On a day the children mourn, I hope they learn.''

The lesson is that drugs turned even a winner like Len Bias into a loser.

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