THE drug issue has hit ``critical mass.'' Every day brings a new angle to the story. Drug cartels set off bombs in Colombia. Drug murders in Washington top 275 in July. Crack houses spread from large to mid-sized urban areas. The number of babies addicted to cocaine increases. A generation is at risk. Americans call illicit drugs the nation's top concern. President Bush plans to make the war on drugs his major fall domestic initiative, starting with a speech next week. His strategy - downplaying the effort to stop drugs at the border and focusing instead on Latin America and American streets - is commendable.
Antidrug initiatives will proliferate thick and fast: withholding driver's licenses for drug use, programming bank computers to spot money laundering, declaring drug-free school zones, closing public housing to drug dealers, buying armored cars for Colombian judges.
Yet despite the rhetoric, the new proposals, and heightened concern, there remains a question of how deeply the public and politicians understand the scope and shape of the problem.
So far most efforts - from federal spending on prisons to addict treatment centers to antidrug TV ads - do not address or identify the roots of the problem. It's not so much how to stop drug cartels, important as that is, as how to stop the American craving for mind-altering chemicals. That's at the heart of the matter. At some point, Americans are going to have to end their drug dependency.
Even if the flow of cocaine were stopped, that doesn't remove the desire for drugs, and doesn't ameliorate the conditions that help create that desire. Besides, a chemical substitute for cocaine could easily be found. Tastes would change. That's how crack got started.
The drug problem can't be solved primarily by public-policy - any more than the evils, passions, and greeds of human nature can be. We've seen that in previous wars on poverty and racism. Sending 10 helicopters to Colombia is much simpler than getting at root causes - such as restoring a structure of family values in the inner city. During the Reagan drug war, US prison population increased 90 percent - from 329,000 to 627,000 - yet drug use increased.
The larger causes of drug use are tied to a breakdown of the ideas of self, family, community, and church - a sustaining vision - in a culture that gives more and more power to commercialism, advertising, money, and the glorification of pleasure. HUD Secretary Jack Kemp begins to articulate the problem by saying the drug crisis is not just one of authority, but of values. Harvard educator Robert Coles calls it a moral and spiritual crisis brought on by the bleakness and emptiness of a conventional, material sense of life.
This is not to make drugs an abstract problem - or to ignore practical efforts. We do know some specifics today. We know there are three types of users: experimental, casual, and hard-core.
Experimenters are often latent romanticists (the English poets Thomas DeQuincy and Samuel Coleridge were users). Casual use means parties, peers. These groups are in decline, but still need attention.
Today, the main focus must be on hard-core use. That means crack - created during a cocaine glut in the early '80s - which is cheap, addictive, and found mainly among the inner-city ``underclass.'' Unless something is done, hard-core use will grow since the underclass is growing.
Half of urban homicides are drug-related; half of those are related to crack. Shutting crack houses is critical. But getting at drug demand will require addressing a spider's web of interlocking conditions that have created anarchy in the inner city: unemployment, single and no-parent homes, illiteracy, gangs, hostility to mainstream culture.
New medical research shows crack addiction can be treated when family and community values take hold in the addict's life. Christian ministers and the Nation of Islam are confronting the difficult issue of the individual's need to battle drugs within oneself - to gain self-respect. It's understood in religious traditions that spiritual experience can be more powerful and real than drugs.
To get to that point will require a long fight for the entire society.