THE use and abuse of illegal drugs seems to have dropped from sight as an issue in United States politics. It was hardly discussed by the candidates in last year's presidential campaign. In his first weeks in office, President Clinton has slashed the staff of the drug czar's office without provoking any visible protest, and he has yet to make any important policy statement on narcotics.
What a difference from a few years ago when drugs were public menace No. 1 - when President Bush used one of his first major addresses from the Oval Office to announce a new antidrug strategy, when he launched an invasion against Panama in part to end drug trafficking and money laundering there, and when he convoked two drug summits with Latin American presidents.
Illicit drugs are as available as ever and the violence and criminality associated with them continues. Hopefully, passions about the issue may have receded sufficiently to allow for more-sensible and effective approaches to be tried. If so, a new book, "The Making of a Drug Free America" (Times Books, 1992), has come along at just the right time. Written by Mathea Falco, former President Carter's senior official for international narcotics matters, the book highlights a range of antidrug programs that h ave worked and could be implemented on a wider scale. Putting these prescriptions into practice would require the US to end its reliance on law enforcement and start investing in education, prevention, and treatment. One recommendation stands out. The US should stop trying to solve its narcotics problem outside its own borders, whether by interdicting drug shipments or cutting out supplies in the countries of origin.
The evidence is overwhelming that US antidrug battles overseas have had no impact on our drug problems at home, and probably never will. Despite the billions of dollars spent on such battles, the General Accounting Office in 1991 found that the flood of drugs to the US had not diminished one bit. Falco's book tells why: "A relatively small volume of drugs can supply our entire ... market. A 20-square-mile field of opium poppies produces enough heroin to meet annual American demand. Four Boeing 747 cargo planes ... can supply American cocaine consumption for a year. Whenever one ... source is shut down, another can rapidly replace it.
"Interdiction has very little effect on street prices ... only 10 percent of the ... price for cocaine goes to those who produce coca or smuggle it.... Even if we were able to seize half the cocaine coming from South America - a wildly optimistic prospect - cocaine prices in American cities would increase by less than 5 percent." In short, no matter how many acres of coca and opium are eradicated or how many processing facilities are destroyed, more are brought into production. No matter how many drugs a re confiscated, more are waiting to be shipped. Nothing the US can do outside its borders will contribute much to solving our domestic drug problem. Our war against drugs will be won or lost at home.
Yet that simple truth is not an argument for the US to abandon the fight against drug trafficking overseas. In many countries of Latin America, the drug trade is eroding prospects for a democratic future. Judges, elected officials, and military and police officers are being bought by narco-dollars and intimidated by the violence of drug lords.
Criminals have taken control of large areas of national territory and often cooperate with antigovernment insurgents. The US should persist in the global war against drugs: to help countries fight against threats to democratic practice and political stability. This war will require a different approach, however. Washington should be helping countries design and carry out their own drug-control strategies, not pressuring them to adopt US remedies. In particular, the US should not try to force other countr ies to enmesh their armies in antidrug efforts, which can undermine civilian control over the military. And US military or paramilitary forces should not be used in drug operations elsewhere.
The Clinton administration should stay engaged in the global battle against drugs, but for the right reasons and with the right tactics - not to solve our drug problems, but to help other countries solve theirs.