The Reagans lead on drugs

THE speech from the White House on Sunday night is an example of the kind of moral direction the President and, in this case, the First Lady, Mrs. Reagan, can provide in the nettlesome matter of drug abuse. Particularly heartening is Mrs. Reagan's focus on individual responsibility, on fostering development in young people -- especially of the strength to say no. She rightly insists that young people have too much going for them, and are too much needed, to waste their lives on drugs. Speaking of drug criminals, she said, ``It's up to us to change attitudes and simply dry up their markets.''

Meanwhile, the drug issue has become such a political wildfire across the country that what is most needed at the moment is some calm consideration of what measures need to be taken to fight the drug menace. In a midterm election campaign lacking in serious partisan issues, calm consideration is unfortunately in short supply.

The omnibus antidrug bill moving through the House of Representatives includes a number of constructive tactics, notably increased funding for drug rehabilitation centers. But last week the House also approved floor amendments allowing for use of the military to interdict drugs at the borders, of illegally obtained evidence in trials of accused drug dealers, and of the death penalty for some drug-linked murders.

These suggestions are troubling. Illegal evidence in the case of an accused drug dealer is no less illegal than such evidence in the case of an accused serial killer. The tradition -- and law -- keeping the military out of civilian law enforcement have deep roots in the American system, along with other civil liberties provisions.

Having clear principles such as these thought through in advance often prevents one from making a foolish or wrong decision in the heat of the moment. The scene in Washington right now seems to be precisely one of those heated moments when the system needs all the principles it's got. And as for the death penalty, it can be sanctioned for drug dealers no more than it can for those found guilty of other heinous crimes.

And the reasons for opposing the death penalty -- or the involvement of the military or mass urinalysis or whatever -- have nothing to do with not taking the drug problem seriously.

Clearly, drugs are extracting an unacceptable toll, not only from direct victims such as basketball star Len Bias, but from society as a whole, including anyone who pays an insurance premium higher than it would be without drug-related crime.

The reports that drug use is actually on the decline are welcome news and help provide a useful perspective; those who need help, however, still need it.

Hence the continuing need for not only moral leadership from the White House, but also sensible steps like increased funding for treatment programs.

It would be unfortunate if the manufactured version of the crisis -- the campaign-season furor -- were allowed to get in the way of taking serious steps to deal with the actual problem.

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