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He Can't Just Say No

September 08, 1986

President and Mrs. Reagan will appear together on television next Sunday with a joint message on drugs.

It is not clear what they will say, but a White House announcement that sounded like something out of a World War II savings-bond rally said that they would carry the message "into every home, every school, every college campus, every locker room, every corporate board room, every office, every studio."

The announcement also ticked off the major features of the President's program to produce a drug-free society. Money was not on the list.

So it seems almost certain that the President will once more put the fear of the furies into the hearts of an electorate that already puts drugs ahead of unemployment and war as things to worry about. The electorate obviously listens, but its alarm is not the problem. The problem is young people who still have not tried drugs for the first time but are going to. Talk seems not to be the answer there; thousands more try drugs every day.

But will the President also share a revelation that a nation can no more talk itself out of drug addiction than an addict can, and say that he is ordering up hundreds of millions of new dollars for the only two weapons of substance--treatment and law enforcement? And will he say, with a national debt of $2 trillion on which Washington pays interest of $13.5 billion every month, where that money will come from? If not, he can expect his campaign to produce more of the same--more addicts, more law-enforcement officers working round the clock and still losing ground.

It is difficult to know what the drug problem looks like from the White House, although it obviously makes some appearances in the guise of political opportunity. It is easier to see on what Times writer Steven R. Churm called "the front line" in a recent and compelling report on drug clinics around Los Angeles.

Budgets are so bare that addicts must wait four months, and in isolated cases much longer, to get into some clinics; some die before their names get to the top of the waiting lists. "I don't sleep well at night anymore," a drug counselor said. "How can you sleep when you spent the day telling a mother that all you can do for her teen-age daughter going through withdrawals is put her on a waiting list?"

Scrimping on budgets of clinics for addicts works not only against society's obligation to help the afflicted but also against the campaign against drugs itself. It costs Los Angeles County $30 a day to help pry an addict free of drugs. That is scarcely a balance for the $300 to $400 that an addict will steal to buy drugs while he is on the waiting list for help--money that also helps make selling drugs worthwhile.

It also deprives society of the most eloquent voices against drugs--the voices of those whose habits are arrested, who will never be completely free of the yearning for drugs, who can talk in the haunted and tortured terms that potential victims can understand.

To escalate the fight against drugs, the Democratic leadership in the House has legislation waiting for action when Congress returns to Washington this week. It would cost $3.75 billion. That may be too much, and it may be not enough. But at least Congress is talking about money--the only weapon that can make a dent in drug abuse. If the President is serious about fighting drugs, he will say that he is ready to support the program and will find the money for it. He has no choice. If he wants to help, he can't just say no.

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