Best Ways to Say No

America's "War on Drugs" has been waged for over a decade with spotty results. Drug use remains a severe problem in the US as in much of the rest of the world.

But the persistence of the problem has never been an excuse for easing up on drugs. Neither relaxed enforcement nor legalization is an answer. Part of the answer has always been a firm, long-term antidrug strategy with a greater emphasis on education, treatment, and prevention.

Those notes were clearly struck this week by President Clinton and his director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gen. Barry McCaffrey. They laid out a drug-control policy that, as they admit, contains little that's new, but could lead toward progress in dampening the demand for drugs among Americans.

General McCaffrey has put primary emphasis where it belongs - on stemming the disturbing recent increase in drug use among the young. This means enhanced efforts to convince schoolchildren of the destructiveness of marijuana, methamphetamine (speed), alcohol, and tobacco. The general correctly points out that an early investment in education can reduce the crushing cost of enforcement and incarceration.

He also points out that the "war" imagery that has surrounded the national campaign against drugs is inappropriate. Smashing, conclusive victories have been elusive because the difficulty isn't some identifiable "enemy" out there, but a tangle of personal, social, and economic motives that demands a variety of approaches and enduring commitment.

International cooperation in curbing the traffic in drugs remains crucial. But it should be impelled by shared interests, not by whip-cracking from Washington. Drugs are undermining Colombian and Mexican societies no less than they are US. On the home front, the criminal justice system should more widely provide drug treatment for offenders, so that people have a way out of the drugs and crime cycle.

It's now up to the president to make it clear the drug-strategy statements aren't election-year posturing, but firm, persevering policy.

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