New bill seen as useful step but not final answer on drug abuse

Drug-abuse experts say the $1.7 billion antidrug bill approved by Congress last week is a step in the right direction. But they caution that it will take years of dedicated work and funding to make a lasting dent in the nation's drug problem. ``It is a significant beginning, but it clearly is not enough,'' says Bill Butynski of the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors. ``We need a sustained federal commitment for a number of years,'' he stresses.

``I think it is going to have a positive impact,'' adds Karst Besteman of the Alcohol and Drug Problems Association of North America. But, he adds, ``I don't think the drug problem has been solved by this piece of legislation.''

Members of Congress shared the two specialists' assessments last Friday as they overwhelmingly approved the compromise drug bill negotiated by a joint House-Senate committee.

Negotiators working to map out a drug measure acceptable to both the House and Senate determined early on that no single piece of legislation could immediately win the war on drugs. The compromise bill is seen as a good starting point.

``One bill is just not going to solve our drug problem,'' says Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, who pushed hard for increased funding for beefed-up drug-interdiction efforts. ``It is going to take considerable time, considerable effort, and considerable money.''

The bill, which calls for actual expenditures this year of roughly $700 million, authorizes increased funding for drug-treatment centers, education and other drug-use-prevention programs, research into drug abuse, and tougher national and local enforcement efforts.

Congressional conservatives, supported by the White House, attempted to insert into the law provisions that met with constitutional objections from moderates and liberals. These included a mandatory death penalty for traffickers who committed drug-related murders, and a proposal to permit the use in criminal trials of evidence gathered improperly by law-enforcement officials.

In the end, however, those two proposals and one aimed at deploying US armed forces along the porous US-Mexican border were deleted.

What survived in the bill were authorizations this year for $230 million in federal funding to help local law-enforcement officials battle drug traffickers; $200 million for drug-education programs in schools; and $241 million to help support drug-abuse treatment programs.

There are an estimated 10,000 drug-treatment facilities in the US.

Drug-abuse experts see the new drug bill as significant, because it increases the federal government's role in efforts to reduce the demand for drugs by Americans. According to Mr. Besteman, recent administrations have focused heavily on law enforcement and interdiction, while cutting the level of federal funding for drug-treatment programs.

``For the first time in 12 years the Congress has gone back to the principle that demand reduction and concern with treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention are as important as interdiction and enforcement,'' Besteman says. ``You need a balanced policy.''

``If the dollars that are spent serve to promote action through education, intervention, treatment . . . then they will be dollars well spent,'' says Dr. Mel Riddile of Straight Inc., a drug-treatment organization.

``Now that we have declared a war on drugs, I think we have a really good chance of winning,'' he says.

Other major provisions of the drug law would:

Authorize more than $600 million for new equipment and personnel to patrol in Florida, Texas, and other border states for drug traffickers. The funds will help purchase new radar equipment, eight Blackhawk helicopters, four E-2C Hawkeye surveillance planes, five Coast Guard cutters, 10 high-speed interceptor aircraft, and 40 speed boats for US Customs agents.

Increase penalties for drug possession and use, including mandatory double penalties for drug traffickers who use children to sell or distribute drugs.

Make the laundering of illicit drug proceeds a federal crime.

Ban the sale of drug paraphernalia through the mail.

Outlaw the manufacture and distribution of so-called ``designer drugs.''

Link the continued receipt of US foreign aid by nations where drugs are grown to continued progress in fighting and controlling illicit narcotics production. The law requires the President to certify to Congress each year that the recipients of US aid are making progress in drug-control efforts.

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