THERE are no yellow ribbons for America's drug warriors. While Desert Storm troops march home to adoring crowds, the nearly-forgotten soldiers in the drug war slog on against an entrenched enemy. The drug war's top new general, Bob Martinez, is finding that criminal cartels and street-corner pushers are far tougher than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Army.
Congress and private experts now wonder: Is America fighting this war with the same savvy it demonstrated against Iraq?
Many authorities say no.
The latest critique of America's drug war strategy was unveiled yesterday by the Inter-American Commission on Drug Policy.
After a two-year study, the blue-ribbon commission concluded that the US wastes $1 billion a year on efforts to halt the flow of drugs into this country. At the same time, other programs that would have a greater effect on drug abuse are underfunded.
The commission, which draws backing from the Ford Foundation, includes members from six nations. It operates out of the Institute of the Americas and the Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies at the University of California at San Diego.
The commissioners were critical of the proposed 1992 White House budget, which would allocate over 70 percent of its $11.7 billion for the drug war to police and military efforts. They say that Governor Martinez, like his predecessor at the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, William Bennett, is putting too many resources into interdiction.
By comparison, $3.2 billion, or less than 30 percent of the drug budget, will be used for narcotics treatment and education.
"These priorities are upside down," the commission argues. "Authorities should give greater attention and funding to what is working: programs to reduce demand and treatment of drug abusers."
The commission particularly objects to massive funding for police and military efforts to block drugs at the US border. Law enforcement funds would be better spent to disrupt criminal networks which produce drugs, and to put police into neighborhoods where drugs are sold.
The stakes in this war are extremely high. Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan observes that the abuse of drugs is costing the US an estimated $176 billion a year. That includes the cost of crime, prisons, medical care for addicted babies, lost economic production, and workplace accidents.
Interestingly, the $176 billion annual price tag is about three times higher than the total cost of Desert Storm, which so riveted national attention.
Mr. Conyers, who chairs the House Government Operations Committee that oversees Martinez's office, expresses the growing frustration on Capitol Hill. At a June 5 hearing, he noted that police officers tell him:
"It's pretty easy to fill up the jails with the pushers and the addicts, but it doesn't begin to make the kind of dent that needs to be made in the drug trade."
The study by the inter-American commission notes that there are "encouraging signs," but that the US doesn't seem to be learning from them. Its report says:
"Cocaine [use] in the US declined by 50 percent from 1985 to 1989; according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, it may decline another 50 percent by 1995."
Martinez says that at the peak of the drug problem, 23 million Americans were using drugs at least once during a 12-month period. That number has now dropped to 12.9 million.
Those figures, however, tell only part of the story. Hard-core addiction, which involves 5.7 million people, remains virtually unchanged. The number of hard-core cocaine users is estimated around 2 million.
Most of the decrease in drug use has taken place among casual users in the middle class. Inner-city use among minorities continues to be high, with all the attendant problems of crime, addiction, and destruction of families.
The commission reports that military and police interdiction has done little to interrupt the flow of drugs. Spending for such efforts rose from under $500 million in 1982 to about $2 billion this year. But the street price of cocaine remains at $100 per gram - where it was in 1982.
Highly touted seizures of drugs "provide only an illusion of success rather than any accurate measure of progress," the commission says.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans who are ready for treatment are unable to get it. Martinez's office estimates that 5.9 million people could immediately benefit from drug treatment, yet there currently are places for only 2 million. That will be expanded to 2.5 million by 1995.
"That is not nearly enough," the commission complains. One-half to three-quarters of the people arrested in US cities abuse drugs, yet only 6 percent of federal prisons offer residential treatment programs for addicts.
The cost of inaction is high. Imprisonment of drug offenders costs an average of $30,000 each per year. Over 300,000 drug-addicted babies are born every year in the US, with medical costs for each child often running over $40,000 for the first four years.
The US must pay for treatment now, or pay the price later, the commission warns.