FOUR years after it began, America's costly "war on drugs" has dropped off the front pages, even though cocaine and heroin are still tearing apart the fabric of cities like New York, Washington, and Los Angeles.
President Clinton, criticized for moving too slowly against the drug trade during his first 100 days, now promises to make combating illegal drugs a major priority. Narcotics can "ruin communities, threaten our children, ... and fill up our prisons with wrecked and wasted lives," he told reporters last week.
Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says that after the federal government has spent more than $38 billion to combat the drug epidemic since 1989, "the time is ripe to take advantage of the lessons learned."
The president, who has consulted closely with Senator Biden, vows to launch a newly directed, three-pronged effort against drugs. His top priorities will be:
* Local police. Additional officers on the streets would be funded with $600 million in new federal monies in fiscal year 1994, which begins Oct. 1.
* Drug education. Prevention efforts would be expanded, particularly among children, with an increased flow of federal dollars, Clinton says. The current $1.5 billion budget for that purpose would rise 16 percent.
* Treatment for addicts. The present level of federal funding for drug treatment, $2.4 billion, would be increased by 10 percent in 1994. Biden would like treatment funds boosted by 45 percent. Treating addiction
One of the big lessons Biden says America has learned is that treatment works, even though the payoff isn't immediately apparent. One reason the drug epidemic goes on and on, particularly among the most addicted, is that thousands get no help.
He says: "Today, 900,000 treatable hard-core addicts roam our streets. Since , at least 1 million drug-addicted offenders were released from prison or jail without being treated."
The implications for the US are grave. Addicts are responsible for much of the spread of AIDS, as well as other communicable diseases. Their addictions also foster crime and violence in big cities and in smaller towns alike.
A number of experts urge that the focus of drug policy be turned away from some of the more controversial policies, such as destroying coca crops in the Andes region of South America.
Billions were spent on such international efforts, including military interdiction, during the Bush presidency.
Clinton now says: "It's time we turned our attention home."
The president's new chief anti-drug official, Lee Brown, is expected to do just that. Dr. Brown is an experienced law enforcement officer who has run police departments in Atlanta, Houston, and New York. Some say he could be a future candidate to head the FBI.
To show the importance he attaches to the drug issue, Clinton says that he will elevate Brown to Cabinet rank if he is confirmed by the Senate as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Brown's specialty is community policing, the kind of close-contact, foot-patrol police work that has brought about a decline in the rate of crime in a number of America's most drug-plagued communities.
After years of an extremely expensive, get-tough, military-style, high-tech "drug war" during the Reagan-Bush era, experts say the struggle against narcotics now has entered a much quieter phase, but one that is still extremely important and possibly decisive.
There are several reasons to expect a more moderate tone in the 1990s, one of which is that Brown is a law enforcer, not a politician and advocate, such as the first so-called "drug czar," conservative Republican William Bennett.
Nor is all drug use still so widespread. Experts say the most feared drug, cocaine (including crack), has passed its peak, particularly among "casual" users. The number of recreational users of cocaine was estimated to have declined from over 22 million in 1985 to a little more than 12 million in 1991.
Drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, a Harvard University professor, says he is willing to speculate that "the number of heavy users [of cocaine] will [also] drop sharply between now and the end of the century....The drug problem will therefore command less public attention..." No `Desert Storm'
Yet the problem is far from over. As casual use has dipped, attention has begun to center on the hard-core addicts, many of whom live in the nation's embattled inner cities.
Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, say problems of hard-core addiction now are also moving to rural areas in less-populated states, like his own, which many Americans had considered nearly immune to the scourge of narcotics.
Dr. Kleiman suggests such severe addiction will not be overcome with a the kind of feverish, media-hyped "drug war" seen in the 1980s. He explains:
"The [coming] effort to control drug abuse is not a Desert Storm. It is what President Kennedy called 'a long, twilight struggle.' It calls for patience rather than enthusiasm, endurance rather than animation, stamina rather than speed."