Drugs--the Real Needs

By selecting the problem of drug abuse as the topic of his first televised address to the nation, President Bush has signaled his Administration's intention to deal systematically with an issue that clearly ranks first among public anxieties.

Whether the system proposed by the President--and, in essence, echoed by the Democratic spokesman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden--is adequate to its purpose now should be the subject of a searching national debate. The welcome absence of partisanship from both Bush's remarks and the Democrats' response is an important first step in that process.

As the Administration's national drug policy director, William J. Bennett, indicated Tuesday, the plan he has prepared for Bush essentially represents a new managerial approach to a welter of federal narcotics-control efforts whose conceptual origins date back to the Nixon presidency. Though spending on these programs would be increased to nearly $8 billion, the ratio of disbursement would remain what it has been for almost 20 years: Nearly 70% would go to law enforcement and the remainder to treatment, education and other forms of prevention.

Critical thinking about the drug problem ought to begin with the question of whether that formula matches what we know of contemporary realities. As the President said, a recent study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse found that the use of illegal drugs by all Americans has declined by more than a third over the past three years. At the same time, the survey reported, nearly a million Americans now admit using cocaine once a week or more. That is double the previously measured rate and is thought to represent the spread of the drug's highly addictive crack variety.

The roughly 9 million Americans who have stopped using illegal chemicals over the past few years are mainly people with sufficient education and economic incentive to be influenced by society's increasing disapproval of drugs. Most also had the private means or insurance coverage that allowed them to undertake expensive private treatment, if they required it. Those people whose drug use increased during that same period are overwhelmingly drawn from that estimated 2.5 million poverty-stricken Americans who belong to the permanent underclass, most of whose members live in segregated inner-city neighborhoods. It is their situation which most people are describing when they speak of "the drug crisis."

The spending priorities advanced by the President indicate he believes that these people can be deterred from using drugs by increasing criminal penalties. The evidence of the past two decades strongly suggests, however, that people living in such deprived conditions do not make rational calculations about consequences, as a deterrence-based system presumes they will. This is not to say spending on law enforcement should be anything less than is required to guarantee people of all social classes physical security. The best way to do that is to do as the President recommends and increase federal aid to local police forces. Beyond that, it seems to us that federal spending on drug control ought to be geared toward providing all Americans with the educational, economic and medical advantages which have allowed so many members of the middle- and upper-classes to choose to overcome this problem on their own.

Finally, it would be helpful if the nation's discussion of this issue were free of the misleading martial rhetoric that marred not only Bush's speech, but also the Democratic response and most of the commentary on both. The United States is not in this instance fighting a war but grappling with an extraordinarily difficult social problem created by the intersection of complex social, economic and biological forces. The metaphor of warfare obscures these facts and leaves us to decide whether those unfortunate enough to be trapped in drug addiction are casualties, enemy soldiers or, perhaps, fifth columnists.

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