THE nation's efforts to combat illegal drug abuse and the crime it causes are in disarray, endangering recent gains we have made against the encroaching spread of drugs.
Perhaps the most visible symbol of this disarray is that the nation's drug czar post remains vacant nearly two months after President Clinton's inauguration. Once a drug czar is appointed, he or she will assume an office that has been down-sized dramatically, from 146 to 25 positions. In the White House staff cuts, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) absorbed one-fourth of the entire reduction.
No one can run a Cabinet-level department and accomplish a large national mission with 25 employees. While other, much larger, departments clearly have major challenges before them, perhaps just a handful are as intractable as illicit drug abuse and drug trafficking. White House Chief of Staff Thomas McLarty made a feeble attempt to convince the press corps that the office would be strengthened by the move. This was accompanied by the clearly disingenuous line, echoed by United States Attorney General Ja net Reno, that the Clinton administration intends to "elevate" the drug-czar post to Cabinet level. The post is Cabinet level by law. It has been Cabinet level since its creation in 1988.
In addition to the free fall at ONDCP, the leaders of the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are under fire, mostly for political reasons.
N his State of the Union address, Mr. Clinton uttered one sentence about crime but did not mention drug abuse. Illegal drug use and drug trafficking appear to be at the end of the president's long priority list. Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York recently said all he hears from the Clinton administration on drug abuse is "a deafening silence." Strange, coming from an administration that emphasizes youth and children and seeks to improve the health of Americans.
While the Clinton administration's lack of attention represents a serious lapse, the problem extends far beyond the White House. Here on Capitol Hill, the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control faces imminent demise. Many in my own party support the elimination of the Narcotics Committee as reform. Change accomplished only for the sake of saying we changed something is regression; it is done in the desperate spirit that something must be changed, and really anything will do. Yet Congress s till has not ferreted out the truly wasteful spending and likely won't if this is an indication of its course of action.
Barring a last-minute reprieve, the only panel on the Hill with the specific mission to examine drug abuse and drug trafficking will be eliminated. The issue will be parceled among the standing committees and subcommittees, with Foreign Affairs continuing to address international drug trafficking, Judiciary addressing law-enforcement issues, Energy and Commerce the health issues, and Banking the money-laundering laws, among others. Nowhere on the Hill will all of these issues be considered as one problem .
Progress on drugs has been made in recent years. According to information for the Select Committee on Narcotics, marijuana use peaked in 1979 and cocaine use peaked in 1985. A 1991 survey confirms the results of other studies that show decreases in casual drug use and a leveling off of most drug trends.
This progress must not be lost. There is a great deal at stake in the drug war. Annual gross sales of illegal drugs are estimated at $110 billion - more than double the profits of all Fortune 500 companies combined. On-the-job drug use is estimated to cost American businesses a minimum of $60 billion every year in lost productivity and drug-related accidents. Three-fourths of all robberies and half of all felony assaults committed by young people involve drug abuse. Drug users are involved in 10 percent to 15 percent of all highway fatalities. About 10,000 cocaine-exposed infants are born each year, and well over half a million are born exposed to other drugs.
The drug/crime problem and consistent public concern about it demand a better focus from the nation's leaders.