Drug War Is a `Steady Flame Issue'

TROOPS abroad and trouble in the economy have nearly shoved drugs off the evening news. A year ago, the drug issue was busting the charts as the overwhelming public concern in national polls, and President Bush launched his drug war.

Drug policy director William Bennett made the rounds last week with his one-year assessment of the current war on drugs. His message: some progress as cocaine use continues to decline and supplies grow tighter, but no victory yet.

Dr. Bennett told reporters at a Monitor breakfast that while the drug war may no longer top the public agenda, it has not lost its public support.

``I would distinguish between passion and commitment, if you will, to borrow from romance. ... The support is there. ... It's not a front-burner high flame, but it's a back-burner steady-flame issue.''

Bennett expressed most concern over whether Congress would cut the drug-fighting budget - as some early committee-drafted versions do.

He also noted ``disturbing reports'' that some states are slipping in their commitment to the drug war, even diverting federal money for drug treatment to other expenses. A quarter of the $10.6 billion federal drug-fighting budget is handed over to states.

Signs indicate that overall drug abuse, and cocaine use in particular, has declined in the past year. Cocaine-related emergency-room admissions dropped 25 percent during the first six months following last September. Cocaine supply seems leaner on the streets, according to Bennett's monitoring. Although violent crime has not lessened, Bennett notes that if the drug business is weakening, turf tensions between dealers might be expected to tighten.

Drug experts, however, have predicted a rise in heroin use on the heels of the crack-cocaine epidemic, based on what they say is a historical pattern of depressant-drug use followed by a craze for stimulants.

``That hasn't happened,'' Bennett said. He does expect the number of heroin users to rise as some cocaine users leave crack for heroin, but only a minority of them.

Bennett welcomed the Colombian government's move last week to offer halved sentences to drug traffickers who come forward with information and no extradition to the United States for offenders who make full confessions.

``We've always been in favor of them strengthening their own justice system,'' Bennett said.

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