WASHINGTON — President Reagan, Congress and local officials geared up Tuesday for a major assault on narcotics, despite a growing uneasiness by both liberals and conservatives that election-year zeal over the issue could produce oppressive, expensive or ineffective law.
Debate will begin today in the House on a comprehensive $1.5-billion anti-drug package, giving the heavily Democratic chamber a jump on Reagan, who will push his competing plan on national television Sunday night.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, unveiled their own anti-drug legislation, which is similar to the House package, and their Republican counterparts are expected to follow suit shortly with yet another version.
Drug abuse and the crime it breeds have quickly emerged as hot political topics in a congressional election year that otherwise has lacked strong national issues. It grows from the recent drug-related deaths of athletes Len Bias and Don Rogers, as well as the publicity surrounding new and dangerous drugs such as the potent form of cocaine known as crack.
While nationwide consumption and smuggling of heroin and marijuana are believed to be leveling off, Drug Enforcement Administration officials believe that cocaine abuse is increasing dramatically. Moreover, the rise is continuing in the face of an unprecedented federal effort involving record manpower and spending devoted to stemming the flow of drugs into the country.
"We find our constituents talking about the need to protect their children, the need to protect their property, the need to protect their lives," said Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), one of the prime architects of the Senate Democrats' package.
Faintly heard beneath the constant drumbeat, however, are concerns that the political climate surrounding the anti-drug drive could distort the nation's fiscal priorities and traditions of civil liberties.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the House Judiciary civil and constitutional rights subcommittee, said the House package should have been put together "with more care. Most of this was done without a hearing."
Edwards and other civil libertarians expressed dismay about amendments imposing the death penalty for some drug-related crimes, giving the military a greater role in enforcing drug law and allowing use under some circumstances of evidence that was obtained illegally or improperly.
Large Margin Seen
Edwards said that these amendments probably would be adopted "rather overwhelmingly"--in part because many members would swallow their misgivings rather than appear "soft on drugs."
Conservatives said they fear that the legislation is simply the political cover under which liberals are trying to restore funds to social programs, such as grants to local governments, that have been pared back under the Reagan Administration.
"I guess we've all forgotten about the budget," said Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), a member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime and a critic of the spending priorities in the proposal.
A group of mayors stumped Capitol Hill on Tuesday in support of the House proposal, complaining that the Administration has not been willing to spend enough on eradicating illegal drugs.
The House package combines stiffer penalties for most drug-related crimes with additional funding for the DEA, prison construction and grants to local police. It also would beef up the Coast Guard and Customs Service.
Other provisions would crack down on money laundering, a practice used by drug traffickers to hide their profits; mandate federal drug education programs, and pour funds into local drug education and treatment programs.
Reagan will not unveil his plan until next week, but it is expected to include an executive order that will widen the use of mandatory drug testing among federal employees. White House spokesman Larry Speakes refused to say how many workers would be affected, but he said the order would be restricted to those involved in sensitive, national-security matters and areas involving the health and safety of others.
Reagan Plan Cheaper
The biggest difference between the approaches advocated by Congress and the White House is expected to be the price tag. The Reagan plan, according to preliminary estimates, will cost about $250 million--or about one-sixth as much as the House plan.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) insisted that the drug problem is more important than the budget deficit. "I would say we just break the Gramm-Rudman (law setting a limit on next year's deficit) and say: 'Hey, this is a program America needs and never mind the costs,' " he said Tuesday.
But Lungren suggested that some provisions in the House measure are reminiscent of earlier, unsuccessful social programs. For example, he said, it would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to state law enforcement agencies, even though a similar Nixon-era program proved to be little more than "a boondoggle."