Why Drug Use Becomes Major Campaign Issue

In presidential campaign politics, the war on drugs has become the war over drugs.

Republican nominee Bob Dole has sought to fix blame squarely on President Clinton after a major survey reported teenage drug use had doubled in four years. Mr. Clinton is countering with complaints that the Republican Congress won't fully fund his antidrug programs.

But what is really behind the escalation of illegal drug use - particularly marijuana - among teenagers? And how much difference can the issue make to a struggling Dole campaign?

The link between social ills and Washington policies is never simple. Narrowly speaking, Clinton should not bear the brunt of blame for trends in drug use, say drug experts. A complex of factors are at play: a decline in media interest, a decline in overall public concern - born, in part, of the almost steady decrease in teen drug use between 1979 and 1992 - and a growing glamorization of drugs in popular culture.

"In recent years, young people have not been surrounded by as many users, and therefore they have had less chance to see the hazards of use," says Lloyd Johnson, a leading expert on drug abuse at the University of Michigan. "It's called 'generational forgetting.' Now young people will learn it [the dangers of drugs] the hard way."

But Dr. Johnson doesn't let President Clinton, and Washington in general, off the hook. Washington's role is important in stimulating other elements in society - local communities, schools, parents, media - to maintain vigilance over drugs, he says.

Clinton administration officials readily admit it was a mistake to deemphasize the drug issue when they took office in 1993. Then, Clinton slashed the drug czar's office from 146 people down to 25. At the time, the move was touted as government downsizing, but it sent a signal that the issue wasn't a priority and damaged the authority of then-drug czar Lee Brown.

But administration officials also point out that the rise in teen marijuana use began during the Bush administration. According to Johnson, the handwriting was on the wall in 1991, when surveys showed that declining numbers of teenagers viewed drugs as dangerous.

Such details don't trouble the Dole campaign team which has sought to link the teen drug trends to the broader issue of White House permissiveness - including reports that some staffers had reported recent drug use but were hired anyway - and the issue of Clinton's own character.

By the numbers campaign

Almost daily, in press releases, public statements, and paid advertising, the Dole campaign highlights the fact that from 1992 to 1995, previous-month use of all illegal drugs by 12- to 17-year-olds went from 5.39 percent to 10.9 percent, according to the federal government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse issued last month.

Adolescent marijuana use - which peaked in 1979, when 16.3 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds said they had used the drug in the previous month - accounts for the bulk of the increase in drug use.

And just as positive trends in the economy, crime, and welfare caseloads redound to the president's benefit - deservedly or not - so too the drug trends represent a potential liability to his reelection campaign. But so far, the public isn't punishing Clinton over drugs. Recent polls show the public still trusts Clinton more than Dole to handle the drug issue, even as voters generally favor Dole overall on character and trust.

"Sure, the drug issue plays into the character thing, but it still doesn't amount to a whole lot," says Del Ali, a vice president at the nonpartisan Mason-Dixon polling firm. "He won four years ago in spite of concerns about character."

Republican consultant Eddie Mahe says it's too soon to say how badly the drug issue can hurt Clinton, because Dole's advertising on Clinton's drug record is just now reaching the airwaves.

Redefining Clinton

"It's a tremendous vulnerability for Clinton," says Mr. Mahe, who does not work for Dole. "I think Bob Dole has to move quickly to redefine Bill Clinton and if he goes in that direction, this is a particularly powerful issue. It affects communities, it affects children."

Clinton, for his part, has spent several months putting his own house in order on the war on drugs. He named four-star general Barry McCaffrey as drug czar, and is putting 150 people in General McCaffrey's office, whose function is to coordinate federal antidrug efforts. Clinton is also pressuring Congress to boost funding for drug interdiction and prevention programs.

Some Republicans are resisting Clinton's efforts, saying they represent a typical Democratic response - spend more taxpayers' money - to a complex social problem that is the job of parents to solve.

Clinton may also have muted the Republican attack on illegal drugs by targeting children's use of tobacco.

Some researchers call tobacco a "gateway drug," because they have found people who take up cigarette smoking are more likely to move on to marijuana and other drugs.

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