Illegal drug use tapers off in US, but supplies are plentiful

If nothing else, the struggle to cleanse America of the scourge of illegal drugs will require a wide-ranging anti-drug effort pursued with vigor for years to come.

That is the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the annual report of the Office of National Drug Control Policy unveiled yesterday by the White House.

The report details a mix of successes and failures. Some important progress has been made: Drug use by youths dropped 13 percent last year. Overall cocaine use is down.

But other measures have worsened. Cocaine and heroin are cheaper than ever before. And newer threats are on the rise, such as methamphetamines.

Methamphetamines have a "serious potential nationally to become the next 'crack' cocaine epidemic," said Barry McCaffrey, the administration's drug-control policy director, in a statement prepared for yesterday's congressional appearance.

Drug czar McCaffrey has often said he does not like the metaphor of a "war" on drugs, with its implication of a definable front line and eventual complete victory or defeat. He prefers to compare the drug effort with a struggle with illness in American society, symbolizing a need for a persistent, systemic policy.

But if pressed, Mr. McCaffrey, a former four-star general, will still speak in military terms.

"For those who say this is a war, we are winning," he said in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee.

After an upward trend between 1992 and 1997, the overall use of heroin in the United States appears to be declining, McCaffrey noted. Drug-related crime - a side effect of controlled substances that can destroy whole neighborhoods in blighted cities - has declined.

Seizures of methamphetamines have gone up dramatically. Efforts to stop the cultivation of drug crops in other nations are having some effect, according to McCaffrey. The former top two suppliers of cocaine to the US, Peru and Bolivia, "have reduced coca cultivation by 66 percent and 55 percent respectively," he said.

In the category of new efforts, McCaffrey has announced that his office will buy $2.1 million of antidrug advertising in most of the highly popular US magazines throughout the month of May. This "roadblock" of ads is intended to hit parents and kids as they are laying summer plans.

"We want parents and young people to know that many kids ages nine to 18 are at a higher risk of trying illicit drugs during the months they are away from school and typically unsupervised," said McCaffrey in announcing the ads.

But the drug-office report also contains many sobering numbers, critics say.

While use of cocaine has stabilized, it continues to be available in virtually all metropolitan areas, at a street price of $169.25 per gram. That is the second-cheapest price on record.

The price of heroin is similarly near record lows, with its purity as high as it has ever been in the US. Deaths from drugs have more than doubled since 1979, to 15,973 in 1997.

"On the most important measures ... we are steadily losing ground," says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank that favors treatment programs, among other antidrug strategies.

The problem of late, say other analysts, is that fighting drugs has been like squeezing a balloon. Pushing in one place causes expansion in another.

Regular use of drugs has been halved in the US, notes Sue Rusche, director of National Families in Action, an Atlanta-based drug-prevention group.

But new drugs such as Ecstasy (pills concocted from synthetic drugs) and other "club drugs" pose fresh challenges.

Drug-use reductions that do occur are due as much to local grass-roots efforts as to overall national policy, says Ms. Rusche. "We are making some progress, and we can make more."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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