THE Rev. David Else likes to tell the story of a father who finally found out his son was an alcohol and drug abuser - after the teen-ager had wrecked the family car for the third time. The outraged father wanted to hunt down the man who'd sold his son drugs. ``His first reaction was, `I'm going to go out and find that pusher, and I'm going to string him up,''' Mr. Else recalls the father saying. He pauses before adding: ``Then he discovered that his son was the pusher.''
For this Episcopal minister, the story illustrates what he sees as one of the biggest hurdles the United States must overcome in its long-term battle against drug abuse: a tendency to blame the problem on somebody else - a schoolmate, a school system, law enforcement, a farmer in Colombia. And he worries that all the attention that's been focused on answers like drug testing only reinforces the tendency to look at surface causes and not deeper social issues.
``We have to face it. The problem is our problem,'' says Mr. Else, who has worked in the alcohol and drug abuse and prevention field for more than 15 years and is now president of the National Episcopal Coalition on Alcohol and Drugs.
``It's like the Pogo thing, `We have met the enemy and they is us.' It starts there. We need to stop pointing fingers at each other and start joining hands,'' Mr. Else says. He notes the irony of an ABC News poll last summer that showed 80 percent of Americans believe illegal drug use is a nationwide crisis, but 62 percent also say it's not in their community, school, or workplace.
``We've got to stop seeing this as a national problem and start seeing it as a community problem,'' says Mr. Else, who helped found a communitywide drug-education and prevention program called the Chemical People, which has spread to 800 communities nationwide.
Like drug treatment experts across the country, this clergyman places a great deal of responsibility on the individual abuser. The decision to stop abusing drugs and alcohol can be made only by the person who is using them, he says. Once the choice has been made, the road toward a drug-free life can be a rough one - requiring fundamental changes in life styles and attitudes.
But Mr. Else is not willing to let the rest of society off the hook, either. He has spent years trying to build coalitions of parents, doctors, educators, government officials, and community leaders to work together on drug education and prevention efforts. He says people are too willing to pay more taxes for drug programs instead of getting personally involved in seeking a solution.
``Am I my brother's keeper? ...'' he asks rhetorically, underscoring his words with a gentle urgency. ``My brother doesn't need a keeper. My brother needs a brother or a sister, not a keeper. Keepers are in zoos.
``We're not responsible for one another,'' he insists. ``We're responsible to one another. There's a vast difference. And we have to learn that....''
And that's not all society needs to do, as far as Mr. Else is concerned. He says drug abuse is a reflection of social values and standards that need to be examined and reevaluated. He says society should hold a mirror to itself and question how some of the values it holds have helped contribute to the drug-abuse problem.
For one thing, he says, there's the issue of pain and pleasure.
``Not that we should go out and look for [pain and suffering],'' he explains. ``But that part of life is dealing and coping with pain, suffering, and that life isn't meant to be a perpetual high. There are joyful moments, but joy is bigger than euphoria. Joy comes most often out of coming through a painful place ... into the light again.
``People look for pleasure as a goal,'' he continues. ``If we do what we should be doing with our lives, we will experience pleasure. But if we seek pleasure as a goal in and of itself, we'll never get it. ...''
Mr. Else also says too many people are inclined to condemn drug abusers instead of drug abuse. And he notes the hypocrisy of a nation willing to wage a war against illegal drugs, but that seems all too willing to overlook the far more serious and widespread abuse of legal drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and prescription drugs.
In fact, when it comes right down to examining society's attitudes toward the drug user, Mr. Else can be even more provocative: He says he believes a drug abuser is actually ``a moral conformist, not a moral deviant.''
``What does this society say?'' he asks. ``It says the answers to our problems lie in material things. You want to feel good? You get things. ... We're very materialistic.''
All of which, as far as Mr. Else is concerned, point to the root of the problem - to a profound spiritual need that he defines in terms of power and powerlessness. Modern man, he believes, is in search of power - the power to control his own life, to make himself satisfied, to change things for the better. For some people, the search leads to drugs.
``They want something that will make them happy,'' says Mr. Else, whose work with drug and alcohol addicts has included one of his own sons. ``Something that will take them out of this horrible situation they're in, something that will be fulfilling to them. They're looking for power in the drug.''
It's a void that Mr. Else says can be filled only by acknowledging man's powerlessness - acknowledging ``that man is not God.'' The power that people seek, he says, can be found only by understanding that there's a power greater than themselves. Some people see that power as truth, justice, or love. Mr. Else calls it God.
``You've got to acknowledge that powerlessness,'' he says. ``And you'll also discover that when we stop trying to be God, we can do fantastic amounts as human beings.''
Although he's continuing his work within the community, Mr. Else says he is now trying to focus his work within his church. As a young priest in the 1960s, he was something of a radical who became disillusioned with the conservatism of his church.
Today, although he still faults most mainstream churches for steering clear of drug and alcohol abuse, he is beginning to push from within, and trying to organize ecumenical efforts. He sees churches as uniquely capable of addressing the spiritual need at the root of society's problems with drug abuse. But he cautions that no one should expect a simple or quick solution.
``We are looking for quick fixes that don't require us to look at ourselves, and change ourselves and change our society,'' he warns. ``It's not a quick-fix thing. It's a lot of hard work.'' The sorts of fundamental changes that are needed, he says, won't be accomplished in one massive movement or antidrug campaign. It's a lesson he learned in the '60s.
``We were trying to change society from the top down,'' he recalls. ``We were going to go out and change the world. ... But I came up with total frustration, because the world didn't change the way I wanted it to as quickly as I wanted it to,'' he continues. ``So I sort of withdrew and started getting involved in this one area [of drug and alcohol abuse].
``And you know what I discovered?'' he asks. ``I've been doing a lot of world-changing since then. Hey, if I change No.1, I'm a part of the world, aren't I? If I change, the world has changed. If I help others to decide to change for the better, I've helped the world.
``We need to realize, you know, that we can't come down as God and revamp the human race,'' he says. ``But we can by our slow, caring, effective ways change the world.''