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Doubts Raised on Drug Effort; Others See Hope

September 15, 1986|KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, urge a "national crusade" for "a drug-free America," many who have studied the problem outside the political arena predict that governmental efforts will produce little more than disappointment.

"We won't do it, and very likely there will be a falling off of zeal," University of Michigan psychology Prof. Joseph Adelson said.

James Mills, author of a recent book about the international narcotics trade, said: "Politicians seeking votes are looking for solutions or programs that are appealing to voters. . . . It's appalling, because it is not going to work. It's more money thrown down a hole."

But others counter that the drive may be well worth the investment if it makes even slight inroads into solving a problem that breeds crime and wastes lives. Reagan estimated that drug abuse costs society at least $60 billion a year.

Power of Public Opinion

And on at least one point there is broad agreement: that President Reagan was right when he suggested that no government program could do as much as public opinion. "We seek to create a massive change in national attitudes which ultimately will separate the drugs from the customer," he said.

Steven Goldberg, chairman of the sociology department at City College of New York, agreed that "massive social disapproval" of drugs could put a dent in the problem, just as it has discouraged cigarette smoking. Although few of today's drug addicts may heed Nancy Reagan's admonition to "just say no," the Administration is also encouraging prominent figures, particularly respected athletes and rock stars, to appeal to young people to turn away from drugs.

Reagan's broad-based attack, the details of which will be announced today, is expected to include mandatory drug testing for federal employees who hold sensitive jobs, a $100-million drug education and prevention program and strengthened law enforcement.

His speech followed by three days approval by the heavily Democratic House of more than $2 billion to wage war against drugs along a front that stretches from the coca fields of Bolivia to the street corners of South-Central Los Angeles. Senate Democrats have announced a similar plan, and their Republican counterparts are expected to produce their own alternative this week.

"There's no doubt that people are running for cover," said John Kaplan, a Stanford University law professor who has written extensively about drugs. "Parents are scared and politicians are scared."

Ironically, however, the call for action comes at time when private and government researchers say overall narcotics abuse has been leveling off or even declining for at least five years.

Cocaine Deaths

What has given the issue a dimension of crisis is an increase in the numbers of deaths and serious health problems associated with a single drug: cocaine, particularly in the dangerous and readily available form known as crack.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that overall consumption of cocaine has remained about the same since 1980--but its surveys of hospitals and coroners also suggest that cocaine users are experiencing more serious consequences, with emergency room admissions and deaths more than tripling since 1981.

Researchers warn that the dramatic and visible moves proposed by Reagan and Congress may not be particularly effective. Beefing up law enforcement to try to stop easily concealable cocaine from reaching the enormously profitable U.S. market, Mills said, is "like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube."

Those with enforcement experience disagree. The attack against drugs is "rushed, it's probably unbalanced, but it's needed," said Peter B. Bensinger, who was drug enforcement chief under Reagan and former President Jimmy Carter and now is a consultant on drugs in the workplace. But he said the additional money would come on top of "woefully inadequate" funding in the past--particularly under Reagan.

Stopping Experimentation

As for drug tests for workers who hold sensitive jobs, many experts see no broad value there, either. "Most of the people who use these drugs are not in the jobs we test," Kaplan said.

More promising than the long and painful process of treating today's drug users, the experts agree, are efforts to prevent experimentation with narcotics. Surveys show that more than one-third of the heroin addicts who are lucky enough to make it into overcrowded government treatment programs are back to using it daily within a year of leaving treatment.

But Kaplan said attitudes toward cocaine are certain to turn, with or without a boost from the government. "In a couple of years, kids on the street will look and see what happened to the older kids who used a lot of crack, and they won't like what they see," he explained. "In time, when a new drug hits, it's gradually tamed."

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