NEWARK, N. J. — As he groped for a way to take charge of the drug issue, Vice President George Bush on Thursday ran into Eric Dillingham.
"The streets are flooded with heroin--high, high quality," Dillingham, 30, told Bush inside the Newark drug rehabilitation center where he received treatment. "There's so much drugs, it's so available, it's so good and it just grabs you.
"It is creating a whole new generation of drug addicts," Dillingham said.
Dillingham's blunt assessment of the nation's rampant drug problem contrasted sharply with the vague solutions Bush dispensed Thursday as he toured urban New Jersey.
In seeking to build on a basic drug plan announced in Los Angeles last week, Bush said Thursday that he would make "drug-free programs" a requirement for all companies that obtain government contracts. He placed his message in a context that made it appear that he was calling for mandatory drug testing for all employees of firms holding government contracts.
"I will ask that the states do exactly the same thing," he said of the programs. "There are those who say that drug testing is an invasion of individual rights. But the use of drugs is not just a personal matter. . . . It's a matter that you see affects the health and safety of others."
But Bush aides later backed off from that interpretation, saying the vice president has not yet determined what type of drug-free program he favors for federal contractors.
"There's a lot of merit to random drug testing; there's a lot of merit to counseling programs, education programs," Craig Fuller, Bush's chief of staff, said. "It's conceivable (that) testing of some kind could be part of it."
Bush announced also, in a speech to business leaders in Secaucus, N. J., that he would create an "international strike force" to hunt down drug smugglers. And, speaking to a group of teen-agers at a youth club in Newark, he hinted that he might appoint a military commander to head international drug-eradication efforts.
The vice president did not explain those points in his public statements, but Fuller said the proposals would be fleshed out later.
The drug issue, at the top of the nation's consciousness, according to polls, is cutting both ways for Bush as he seeks to wrest it from the hands of Democrats Jesse Jackson and Michael S. Dukakis.
Bush has tried to take credit for helping halt the flow of drugs into the country through the South Florida drug task force he headed. But, in doing so, he positions himself for criticism from Democrats and others that the efforts have done little to limit drug abuse.
In the Newark clinic Thursday, patients undergoing rehabilitation offered what served as a rebuke of the Administration's leadership.
Five patients who assembled to talk to Bush called for more--and cheaper--rehabilitation programs.
"You have to have a place to go where you don't have to have $30,000 (to enroll)," Dillingham told Bush. He said--and program directors concurred--that typical patients have to wait weeks to get into overcrowded treatment programs.
"When six weeks rolls around, where am I?" he asked Bush. "I could be dead."
Bush continues to come under fire for the Administration's extended negotiations with Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega, who has been indicted by Florida grand juries on charges of drug trafficking.
In his efforts to draw a distinction between himself and the Democrats, Bush has repeatedly challenged Jackson and Dukakis to join him in favoring a death penalty for "drug kingpins."
Dukakis, in a debate with Jackson Wednesday night, denounced Bush's proposal, saying it was "the height of hypocrisy" for Bush to advocate the death penalty for drug pushers while the Administration was plea-bargaining with Noriega.
When questioned by reporters, Bush has refused to say whether Noriega would fit his definition of drug kingpin.
"Let's wait and see what the severity of the allegation is," he said late Wednesday.
After a two-day campaign swing in New Jersey, where the uncontested Republican primary will be held on June 7, Bush departed for his summer home in Kennebunkport, Me. In meetings scheduled over the next several days, he will discuss domestic policy issues with a variety of advisers and is expected to firm up positions for the general election campaign.