US War on Drugs Losing In Cities, Winning in Suburbs

Experts say widening gap could hamper antidrug efforts

AMERICA'S drug war is being won in the suburbs, but lost in the inner cities. Drug experts say that illegal use of narcotics has dropped sharply since 1985 among middle-class Americans. Casual use of cocaine fell by as much as 50 percent.

But hardcore drug addiction, especially in central cities, has stubbornly increased, despite stronger police efforts by all levels of government.

Authorities warn that this dichotomy between suburbs and cities could hamper the drug war.

Charles Schuster, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that as the drug problem declines in middle-class, suburban neighborhoods, ``concern and interest [about drugs] may wane.''

Kevin Zeese, counsel for the Drug Policy Foundation, says the latest reports may show the drug war ``can get rid of the [recreational] users, but what's left are the abusers, and the abusers get worse.''

Reggie Walton, associate director of the President's Office of National Drug Control Policy, admits that middle America may lose interest as the problem recedes: ``It's conceivable - out of sight, out of mind. That's how we got into this.''

According to the best available data, the number of casual cocaine users fell from 5.8 million in 1985 to 2.9 million in 1988, while the number of hardcore addicts rose from 650,000 to 800,000.

Some analysts argue that all those numbers are too low, especially those for addicted persons. However, there is little dispute that casual use of cocaine, marijuana, and other illicit drugs is declining among middle-income and upper-income Americans.

President Bush's $10.2 billion fight against drugs came about only because ``abuse was affecting all communities,'' Dr. Schuster says. He worries that if middle America reduces its support for the drug war, the crisis ``will blossom again through the rest of society'' at a later time.

Peter Reuter, co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at RAND Corporation, says his studies concur that ``drug use is becoming more concentrated among poorer users.''

Ironically, Dr. Reuter warns that some social problems may worsen as the number of drug users declines. ``As the middle-class drug market dries up, property crimes could rise,'' he says.

The reason: Many inner-city addicts currently fund their habit by selling drugs to suburbanites. Perhaps two-thirds of the money to buy drugs comes from that source. As the suburban market shrinks, addicts must find other ways to pay for drugs.

That may already be happening. Judge Walton says that a deputy chief in the toughest drug neighborhood in Washington, D.C., recently reported a ``tremendous surge'' in shoplifting. It appears that many drug pushers are losing their suburban customers and are looking for other crimes to maintain their incomes, he says.

There is little doubt that the impact of addictive drug use in the inner cities is devastating - and getting worse, experts say.

Rep. Lawrence Coughlin of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, says the results of hardcore addiction, including babies born to crack-addicted mothers, are ``astounding'' and ``abominable.'' Drug criminals have turned parts of Philadelphia into places that ``look like a war zone,'' he says.

David Westrate, assistant administrator for operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, says one of the most dramatic impacts of the recent wave of addiction has been on black women. The culprit, he says, is crack cocaine.

``In my personal experience, [during 27 years at DEA], crack is more addicting than heroin,'' he says. ``The black female in the inner city, before crack, was drug-free. [But crack is] destabilizing the inner city - bringing chaos. To me it is crisis proportions.''

What can be done? ``There is no silver bullet'' to correct the problem, Mr. Westrate says. But experts do have ideas.

First, more treatment.

Second, get tougher on drug-pushers.

Third, improve education.

Fourth, strengthen families and other support groups.

Specialists decry the lack of treatment facilities. Thousands who are asking for help with their drug problems find there is no room available at state or local facilities - and many cannot afford private treatment.

Meanwhile, police complain that arresting pushers does no good, for they are back on the streets within hours. State and federal prisons are overflowing.

Schuster says education can play a critical role. His studies show that children who fail early in school often turn to alcohol and cigarettes by age 9 or 10. Illegal drugs soon follow. The key to preventing this is teaching kids to read in the first grade. That makes schooling a positive experience, and shapes the children's education for years to come, he says.

The family experience also is vital. And ``family'' doesn't mean just a father and a mother. It can be any caring adult - a grandmother, uncle, aunt, or even an older brother or sister.

Only a coordinated attack, bringing all these elements together, can solve the drug problems facing the inner cities, experts conclude.

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