IT has been a long year for the United States as it has wrestled fitfully with what to do about its severe drug-abuse problem. While members of the federal government have debated what Uncle Sam should be doing, society has recorded both visible failures in dealing with the drug incursion and largely unseen but basic successes.
The Bush administration's antidrug strategy, formulated earlier this year by drug policy director William Bennett, has drawn applause from those experts and politicians who seek additional emphasis on punishing drug-law violators, coupled with a go-slow approach to increased spending for drug education and treatment until society can agree on which tactics really work.
But the strategy has been criticized by other experts and politicians: those who want much more money spent now on education programs, treatment facilities or both, in order to reduce demand for drugs and aid drug addicts in ending their habits.
Congress moves to increase funds
After months of discussion Congress last week passed or moved to the brink of passage a number of antidrug laws in the annual flurry to adjourn. Included are provisions for:
Building $1 billion worth of new prisons.
Spending $1 billion more for drug treatment, prevention, and education programs.
Providing additional funds to Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru - chief sources of cocaine - to combat drug production.
Forcing states to put drug-treatment plans into effect before they can receive federal antidrug funds.
What the federal government is doing ``is pretty much what we have done in the past, only more so,'' says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ``There isn't a heck of a lot that government can do.''
Government at all levels is now confronted by cheap and deadly crack cocaine that has turned largely minority inner cities into war zones. Cocaine, marijuana, and their attendant problems have spread their tentacles into sleepy towns from Georgia to Texas to New Hampshire. Despite highly publicized seizures of large drug shipments, the flow of illegal narcotics continues to overwhelm the ability of the US government to curtail it.
Yet experts say America is making progress in fundamental areas. One is fast-growing public awareness of the seriousness of the illegal drug problem.
``Over the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the percentage of the public saying drugs is the No. 1 problem'' facing the nation, says Everett C. Ladd, executive director of the Roper Institute. This public concern is significant in a society that requires public support for major expenditures, such as the antidrug efforts demand.
Also on the rise is an awareness that simple, broad-brush approaches are not enough in dealing with drug treatment and education programs, says Edwin Delattre, a specialist on drug issues at the American Enterprise Institute. Combating different kinds of drugs often requires separate types of treatment, and new types of drugs are coming along all the time. There will be a continuing need for research, he says.
Further, different people taking the same drug may need different approaches: For example, chemical approaches to negating the body's craving for cocaine appear promising, but cannot be used by women who are pregnant - a crucial exception since many children are now born with an addiction acquired from cocaine-using mothers.
Similarly in drug education: ``You need specific kinds of education,'' Delattre says. ``You need to know a lot more about what works and what doesn't'' with specific groups.
Among many high school and college students - especially those with aspirations and a pattern of academic success - drug education already is working, with a 37 percent drop reported in recent months in the number of students who use the drugs. This is encouraging, but the educational programs that have helped produce this decline have not shown similar success among low-achieving inner-city minority youth.
Business efforts on the rise
Also encouraging is the way American business has moved ahead in drug programs. It has reason to: In theft, absenteeism, accidents, and deaths, business pays approximately two-thirds of the nearly $150 billion estimated annual cost in America stemming from consumption of illegal drugs and abuse of alcohol, according to Delattre.
Most large American firms now have programs to identify early and aid employees who use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol, he says. Many smaller firms, too, are installing such programs.
Despite these areas of progress much remains to be done before the antidrug effort can be deemed successful.
Some experts say states spend too much time beseeching the federal government for aid, and not enough time helping themselves. ``States are doing far too little to fight drug abuse,'' says Jeffrey Eisenach of the Heritage Foundation. He says America's ``greatest single failure'' in combating drugs has been the inadequate effort of states to enforce their own laws against drug possession, which are rarely prosecuted, and even drug dealing. He says they should move more quickly to build new prisons.
A long-term battle
That's expensive. But in the whole panorama of programs to roll back the tide of drug abuse it's only a start: ``Nobody supposes the amount of money being invested now is going to be enough'' to deal with the problem in the long run, Delattre says. ``It's going to be tremendously expensive,'' to the federal and state governments.
But if huge sums of federal money were found today and poured into treatment and education programs, much would be wasted, Delattre and others say, because more must be learned about which programs work.
To throw money at the problem now runs the risk of failure, he adds, enabling persons who advocate legalization of drugs to insist that theirs is the only viable solution - and perhaps win broad support.
One point on which everyone agrees: The problem is long-term, and society must have the staying power to combat it for years. ``If ever the phrase `the price of freedom is eternal vigilance' was true,'' says Delattre, ``it is true about drugs.'' This is the last of three articles written in conjunction with the National Issues Forums. The NIF is an annual project involving a nationwide network of more than 1,500 colleges, libraries, civic organizations, and other groups. Each fall, participating groups hold public meetings to discuss three national policy issues. The NIF then sponsors meetings with government and other national leaders to share the results of the discussions. 1. NOV. 7 - CHILD CARE 2. NOV. 14 - THE ENVIRONMENT 3. TODAY - THE DRUG CRISIS For more information on the project, write to: NATIONAL ISSUES FORUMS 100 COMMONS ROAD DAYTON, OHIO 45459-2777