New drug strategy focuses on cartels. President expected to OK plan to devote 80 percent of effort to catching big buyers, sellers

Government prosecutors working on narcotics cases will focus on international drug cartels rather than drug dealers in general, according to a proposed national drug-enforcement strategy. On Thursday, President Reagan will review the strategy, which requires United States attorneys to devote at least 80 percent of their drug-enforcement manpower to cracking big cases, such as those involving the cartels.

The ``National Narcotics Prosecution Strategy'' has generated much debate among US attorneys, especially those concerned they may be penalized by the plan - mainly in the West and Midwest, where much of the drug problem stems from local or intrastate trafficking.

Barring any major congressional objections, the President's nod of approval will likely end the debate over the policy, which has not been made public. But it is unlikely to end the grumbling from those who have philosophical and practical differences about how the war on drugs should be prosecuted.

``This is a Washington product, without a lot of input from the field,'' says one US attorney, who asked for anonymity. Since the first draft of the plan was circulated among US attorneys last summer, there have been ``significant changes'' to meet prosecutors' objections, he says. ``But the overall thrust is the same, and it's the overall thrust that we have the philosophical dispute about.''

The Justice Department counters that it has been and will continue to be flexible about the prosecution guidelines. ``Strategies are not written in stone,'' says Joe Whitley, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division.

The national plan was drafted in large part by William Weld, who headed the department's criminal division until he resigned March 29. It has been through more than a half-dozen drafts, and even critics say many of the kinks have been worked out. The final plan, which has already been approved in principle by the National Drug Policy Board, sets out the following guidelines for prosecutors:

Justice Department attorneys working on drug cases - there are now nearly 750 from the field US attorneys' offices, the criminal division, and the tax division - should spend at least 80 percent of their time on big cases. The targets would be international or multistate organizations trafficking in large amounts of narcotics: 10 kilograms of heroin a year, 50 kilograms of cocaine, 10,000 kilograms of marijuana. (A kilogram is 2.2 pounds.) Prosecutors should also concentrate on big money-laundering groups - those that launder $5 million or more derived from narcotics sales.

In addition, prosecutors should try to bust those who operate large narcotics laboratories and traffic in the chemicals necessary for the production of narcotics. They should channel prosecutorial efforts toward those caught at the US border with large amounts of drugs, as well as government officials involved in the drug trade.

Theoretically, at least, prosecutors may go after local and regional traffickers if a committee of local, state, and federal law-enforcement investigators and attorneys decides the case will lead to something bigger. Some US attorneys, however, doubt whether even designated small cases will pass muster.

The strategy leaves 20 percent of the federal resources for helping local and state agencies pursue smaller drug users and traffickers. The emphasis on big cases is ``the right posture,'' says Jack Morgan, assistant US attorney in Tulsa, Okla. ``The state and local [drug enforcement] people should handle the street dealers,'' he says. ``Only the federal government has adequate assets to go after the mid- and upper-level traffickers.''

Others disagree. ``There are a number of mid-level organizations which are really the ones causing the problem in the heartland of America,'' says one US attorney who requested anonymity. ``Those organizations would not be addressed to the extent they should be with the 80 percent policy.''

He recalls a recent, successful prosecution of traffickers in a major drug organization. It started when agents caught someone with a half-ounce of cocaine; that person led them to a 2-ounce buy, then to a 4-ounce buy, and ultimately to a 3-kilo buy.

``It turns out that the people delivering [the 3 kilos] would qualify as `priority 1' targets because they were capable of dealing in excess of 50 kilos a year,'' he says. ``If we followed the 80 percent strategy, we would not have been able to pursue the three cases leading up to the delivery of 3 kilos of cocaine. You have to start at the bottom,'' he concludes.

Other attorneys complain that the strategy undercuts their use of informants. If a small-time dealer knows he won't be prosecuted because attorneys are concentrating on higher-level cases, he has little incentive to cooperate.

But perhaps the most sensitive matter involves staffing. US attorneys - especially those outside of big drug-ring areas such as Miami, New York, and Los Angeles - worry that they may be penalized if they do not prosecute enough priority cases.

The strategy's authors tried to alleviate that fear. According to the document, the plan ``shall not result in a reduction of the level of narcotics prosecutorial resources presently allocated to any judicial district.''

``Presently'' is the operative word, one US attorney says. ``I don't think there's any doubt that new positions would go to the border sites - south Florida, Texas, California, New York,'' he says. ``That's distressing for those of us who don't live in those districts.''

In a recent interview, Mr. Weld said: ``I doubt it would ever come to resources being withdrawn from a US attorney. But in the real world I think people who hit blazing home runs in this priority universe are probably going to do well when resource decisions are made.''

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