US Wrestles With Drug Strategy

Washington must decide what method to stress: law enforcement, education, or treatment. POLICY DILEMMA

AMERICA has reached a crossroads in its war against illicit drugs. The White House and Congress must soon decide: What weapons work best against drugs? Should the top priority be law enforcement? Or education? Or treatment?

In September, United States drug czar William Bennett submits his new drug control strategy to Congress. Lawmakers are eager to learn where Mr. Bennett will deploy federal manpower and dollars to attack the drug crisis.

Experts say there are essentially four choices. The problem for Bennett will be picking the methods he thinks work best, then allocating scarce resources to those areas. The choices include:

Law enforcement. The Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Customs, Drug Enforcement Administration, and other agencies all need more manpower to halt drugs at the border and apprehend narcotics traffickers. But there is a problem: Lawmen so far have not been able to reduce the flow of drugs significantly.

International action. Greater resources could be devoted to overseas efforts, including foreign aid, to reduce the production and importation of drugs from other countries. Problem: Key countries are sometimes unwilling or unable to cooperate.

Education. Starting in elementary schools, the government could boost spending for programs that teach children to resist drugs. Problem: Progress could take many years.

Treatment. Vast new resources could be poured into programs to treat heroin and cocaine addicts, and conduct research on more-effective methods of treatment. Problem: Costs are high; results, sometimes uncertain.

Mathea Falco, a former assistant secretary of state who dealt with international narcotics problems, says in recent years most federal resources were devoted to law enforcement. Other areas were neglected.

Ms. Falco, author of a just-released study entitled ``Winning the Drug War,'' observes that US drug efforts have gone through cycles since the early 1900s.

Beginning with the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, drugs were seen primarily as a law-enforcement problem. Falco says the assumption was: ``Effective enforcement ... will help reduce or eliminate drug abuse.''

President Nixon sharply altered that policy in 1969. He emphasized reducing drug use through treatment, rehabilitation, and research. Mr. Nixon poured two-thirds of all federal drug money into such preventive programs.

President Reagan reversed that policy once more in 1981 when he again poured funds into law enforcement. Falco notes:

``From 1981 through 1986, funding for law enforcement more than doubled - from $800 million in 1981 to $1.9 billion in 1986. About 90 percent of the total increase in federal drug-control funding ... went to law enforcement....

``Total federal funding for prevention, education, and treatment declined from $404 million in 1981 to $338 million in 1985; when adjusted for inflation, this amounted to a reduction of almost 40 percent,'' she says.

The differences between the Nixon strategy and the Reagan strategy highlight the main debate about the drug war.

The questions for Mr. Bennett and for President Bush will be: Is halting the flow of illegal narcotics into the country the most effective way to fight drugs? Or is it more cost-effective to reduce demand for drugs among the population, especially schoolchildren? Bennett Study Awaited

The Bennett-Bush choice should be clear when Bennett releases his study in September. Meanwhile, other experts are weighing in with their opinions.

Beginning in 1986, Congress indicated that it wanted more funding for prevention and education. The comprehensive Anti-Drug Abuse Act, in October 1986, called for a tenfold increase in prevention and education programs. Even so, three-quarters of all federal spending still went to law enforcement.

In 1988, the Senate called for reallocation of federal resources in the drug war, with 55 percent of all spending to go for non-law-enforcement activities. But in the final version of the bill, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, the percentage requirement was dropped.

Falco's study, written under a grant from the Twentieth Century Fund, calls for sharply increased efforts in prevention and treatment. At the same time, she says law enforcement efforts should be redirected against the greatest threats, particularly cocaine and heroin trafficking, with less emphasis on marijuana.

Falco argues that the failure of law enforcement efforts is clear. Arresting thousands of drug dealers has ``led to intolerable strains on the criminal justice system and severe prison overcrowding without producing any reductions in drug abuse and crime,'' she contends.

``Tightening enforcement without ... providing treatment leads to increased crime by addicts trying to obtain money.''

The author calls for a multipart program that, she says, should make America less dependent on illicit drugs. Its highlights:

1.Target the most dangerous drugs. Major federal efforts (including half the Coast Guard budget) currently go into the war on marijuana, but other drugs, like crack-cocaine, pose a much more serious threat.

2.Keep drugs illegal. Despite demands that drugs like cocaine be legalized, such a move could escalate crimes of violence and deaths.

3.Reallocate enforcement money. Decrease border interdiction and beef up enforcement at the street level, while expanding prison and court capacities.

4.Greater diplomatic efforts. Find new ways of fostering international cooperation. Give drug control the highest diplomatic priority.

5.Expand multinational efforts. Work with the United Nations and other international bodies to coordinate worldwide antidrug efforts.

6.Expand media efforts. Encourage free public-service advertising which attacks apathy and ignorance of drug dangers.

7.Take steps that create a climate hostile to illegal drug use. Encourage programs like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), which have reduced public tolerance for drinking and driving.

8.Boost funding for research to find ways to counteract the appeal of drugs, especially among the young. Also increase funding for research on drug treatment.

9.Increase opportunities for those in need of treatment to get it. Currently, treatment is available to only 4 percent of America's 6.5 million drug addicts.

Falco, a New York lawyer, served in the State Department from 1977 to '81.

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