Beyond `just saying no'

ILLICIT drugs wreck lives. Drugs finance crime, tie up tens of thousands of police in largely futile law enforcement. Drugs infiltrate schools. They are parasites: They finish off dying neighborhoods; they unravel wealthy suburban families. Don't get us wrong. America isn't about to succumb to drug use, any more than it is about to go belly up because of the federal budget deficit.

Nor is it fair to say that drug use - crack, cocaine, marijuana, or substances we have not even heard of - is the fault of weak public leadership, any more than widespread ignorance is the fault of failed public education.

Some official steps would help: Washington's efforts this past week to put the financial screws on Panama's drug-connected strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega show one course. But the administration has not fully used this form of pressure elsewhere. Explicitly linking aid for countries like Mexico to action against drug producers and traffickers is difficult. But it is a tactic that should be tried, even as the US keeps in mind the need to work cooperatively with these countries.

A way not to go is to crimp the effectiveness of services like the US Coast Guard, whose budget the Reagan administration has cut. And the Customs Service's new policy of threatening to seize passports of drug-bearing tourists probably is not the way to go either, for constitutional reasons.

Illegal-drug use is not much of a partisan issue. Nancy Reagan's nostrum - ``Just say no!'' - has become a vehicle for parody. The presidential candidates at best can use it as a cipher for alleging the failure of previous national leaders, however unfairly.

Individual and collective values, if advanced and encouraged, can help potential users be alert enough to resist drugs when they are made available. Here, at the demand side of the drug trade, the defense can be strengthened.

But the supply side too must be attacked, and the trafficking mechanism shackled. The State Department reported this past week that the production of coca, marijuana, and opium-poppy crops in most drug-producing countries has been multiplying, not receding. The producer countries cannot control their internal drug operations. Tightening surveillance of bank money-laundering operations would help, though much of the drug world's money moves through underground channels.

So it's tough to resist drugs. It calls for action, persistence at official levels, and a strong personal defense.

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