WASHINGTON — Federal drug enforcement strategists, frustrated by skyrocketing cocaine demand, say they may resume prosecuting narcotics users in an effort to make an example of those who participate in drug conspiracies.
Despite a governmentwide drive against organized crime drug traffickers, "people are out there using these drugs, and we have not broken that (demand) curve," said Charles W. Blau, the deputy associate attorney general who oversees the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Program.
Not since 1973 has the federal government cracked down on users. Instead, the expanding federal anti-drug drive has concentrated on leaders of trafficking organizations, their money-laundering associates and organized crime figures trading in illicit drugs.
Although the government will continue to focus on traffickers, Blau said, it may selectively pursue their customers as well. "A person who utilizes an illegal controlled substance is as much a part of the conspiracy chain as a person who distributes it," he said.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III will meet in El Paso on April 15 and 16 with U.S. attorneys from the 13 cities where federal anti-drug task forces are operating, and Blau said that prosecuting users is "obviously one of the issues that's going to come up."
Blau's comments appear to be part of an expanding government effort to attack the demand side of the drug equation. Last month, in his first major speech as attorney general, Meese said that illicit-drug customers "must know that they are supporting those who deal in terror, torture and death. They may think they are just purchasing pleasure for themselves, but they are also wholesaling misery to millions of people who are oppressed by drug trafficking."
And, last Friday, in an effort to discourage drug use, the U.S. Customs Service began publishing weekly a list of persons who have been caught smuggling small amounts of illegal drugs into the country but who are not arrested or prosecuted.
Previous Drive on Users
The federal government last prosecuted users during the Richard M. Nixon Administration in an 18-month campaign against then fast-rising heroin use. That effort, under the direction of the short-lived Office of Drug Abuse and Law Enforcement, was aimed primarily at street-level heroin pushers but moved against users as well. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the chief federal agency in the anti-drug drive, has never in its 12-year history pursued users because of insufficient manpower, a spokesman said.
When asked why he thought apprehending drug users would work as an enforcement strategy when it apparently has failed in the past, Blau said: "I guess we won't know until we try." The suggestion that users be targeted has been "raised by prosecutors and agents involved" in the task forces, he said.
Users of any illicit drug could be prosecuted, Blau said. But he ruled out prosecuting someone caught smoking a single marijuana cigarette, saying: "That would be a little bit extreme."
Blau met with reporters Monday to answer questions on the second annual report of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Program, which Meese said had shown "a remarkable level of achievement."
Cocaine Supplies Rise
The report noted that, although marijuana consumption dropped "somewhat" in the United States last year, cocaine importation had jumped from 69 metric tons in 1983 to as much as 90 metric tons in 1984. As a result, the wholesale price of a kilogram of cocaine dropped from a range of $55,000 to $65,000 in 1982 to about $42,000 in 1984.
"We have not seen a peak in the use of cocaine," Blau said.
During 1984, the task force program, which became fully operational in the summer of 1983, brought criminal charges against 3,733 defendants, and 1,408 individuals were convicted and sentenced. One-third of those charged were classified as leaders of criminal organizations, and one-fifth were ranked as major drug suppliers and distributors.
Fines, seizures and forfeitures of property and cash in the cases exceeded $219 million, according to the report.