MIKE CUTTING wheels his police cruiser smoothly past the 19th-century white colonial houses and newer Cape Cods that line Main Street. It is the center of a town that seems type-cast as the setting for Thornton Wilder's ``Our Town.'' Yet Warner, population 2,000, also has something that's far from idyllic: a hidden drug problem.
Some residents use drugs, primarily marijuana and cocaine. Other townspeople sell drugs in small amounts.
Most insidious of all, a few major drug traffickers have moved into Warner, figuring it a nice little town in which to lie low while they conduct their illicit business.
Experts say most other small American towns also have drug problems but that many prefer to turn their heads away.
``There's no doubt in my mind that we've all got it,'' says Mr. Cutting, Warner's articulate police chief. ``The only question is: Do you want to be an ostrich and stick your head in the sand? Or do you want to be an owl and sit up on the limb and watch it?''
Cutting and Warner have chosen to be owls. They not only watch from their metaphoric limb but swoop down upon drug-using and drug-trafficking townspeople to root out the drug problem through public cooperation and arrests.
The presence of drugs in small towns like Warner is part of a nationwide pattern, says Edwin Delattre, Bradley fellow in applied ethics at the American Enterprise Institute: ``It is the spillover of the effects of drug traffic, from cities into small towns and rural areas.''
The presence of drug traffickers in a quiet little town like Warner ``shows nobody's invulnerable,'' Mr. Delattre warns. ``Nobody is really safe from a scourge like this.''
``You would think that up here in the sticks of New Hampshire ... that drug problems would be the last of your worries,'' says J.D. Colcord, chairman of Warner's board of selectmen.
``But I can tell you that's not true. We don't have the magnitude of the problem'' that big cities do, Mr. Colcord adds in an accent unmistakably New Hampshire. ``But per capita, it's probably just as bad as in those places.''
Numerically, few residents are involved in drugs - either using or selling them, Chief Cutting says. ``Probably 90 to 95 percent of our activity involves about 5 percent of the population of our town. I'm sure that's true of most every other town.''
But the drug problem is clearly growing, he says.
Cutting surmises that most residents are aware of their town's drug struggles. But a stroll down Main Street finds a number of alert and concerned citizens who all say they are unaware of their town's drug problems.
``I don't think there is a drug problem in Warner,'' says resident Leo Carroll thoughtfully, in a typical comment.
``Of course they're having a lot of drug problems in the larger communities,'' says a bus driver from the front seat of her yellow school bus. ``But this town is a pretty nice place to live. Let's hope we can keep it that way.''
Cutting and his eight part-time police officers are trying, with the backing of the board of selectmen. Together they average about 100 hours a week of patrolling Warner's 64 miles of roads.
Time and again residents smile and wave when they see Cutting driving slowly along the steep back roads of his little town. He smiles and waves back. It is his nature to be friendly, but it is also important in his job.
``You've got to be friendly in these towns,'' he says. ``You've got to have a good rapport'' with residents.
Cutting's department is working on visibility as well as rapport, and it is paying off. ``The more active and visible the police become, citizens call you more often,'' Cutting says.
Numerically most of the drug-related incidents Cutting and his well-trained force handle are related to traffic offenses, like drunken driving, when drugs are spotted in the stopped vehicle. ``That's where we've made numerous drug arrests, usually for small quantities'' of marijuana and cocaine hidden in cars.
But the gravest concern of policemen and town officials swirls around the efforts of three alleged drug traffickers to use Warner as a place in which to hide out, and to conduct business including moving drug shipments. Cutting's police department, state police, and police officers from nearby towns built cases against all three and arrested them. One fled the country, and the other two are awaiting trial.
Cutting slows his four-wheel-drive patrol car on a steep dirt road, and gestures toward a long, steep driveway that disappears back into the New Hampshire woods.
``One of the alleged largest drug traffickers in the state of New Hampshire - he lives in there,'' he says quietly.
That's the sort of location that appeals to drug traffickers, he says - a long driveway off an isolated dirt road. The combination makes it very difficult for police to keep the place under surveillance, which generally is an essential part of building a successful drug case.
Besides, Warner is conveniently located for drug traffickers along Interstate 89, which Cutting calls the ``Ho Chi Minh Trail'' for the drug flow north from Boston and Lawrence, Mass., into central New Hampshire.
A year and a half ago a law enforcement raid at the home of a suspected major trafficker in a neighboring town turned up automatic weapons and a hidden bunker in the barn.
They also found a three-foot long piece of plastic drainpipe, stuffed with money. ``We found the pipe in the barn, where it had been put after having been dug up,'' Cutting says.
The find appears to indicate that some traffickers are making so much money they can't put it all in the bank because of the suspicions it would raise, Cutting adds.
Not everyone waves cheerily when he drives by. As he passes one large dwelling the three people on the porch give him icy stares. ``Busted people here for drugs once,'' Cutting says quietly. ``We have a mutual respect, I guess you could say.''
If all of this, in combination, is the drug problem in Warner - what is the solution?
``We wish we had the answer,'' says Warner selectman Catherine Lynn Bean.
There isn't any overnight solution, experts say: not in Warner, not anywhere. It will take work, and time. They propose a number of steps such as citizen participation in identifying drug dealers; more uniformed police patrols; effective drug education for young children; strengthened families; and a federal data bank that lists drug traffickers, into which towns like Warner could tap. Of all these ``education, I think, is the key,'' says Warner Selectman Colcord. ``Start early. Do it well. Do it forcefully.''