WASHINGTON — Dealing with America's complex and costly drug-abuse epidemic must be one of the new Adminstration's domestic priorities. The Reagan Administration had limited successes in its war against drugs--raising the drinking age to 21 and the "Just Say No" campaign, for example, but its biggest investment--law-enforcement efforts to stem the flow of drugs--has failed. And the past political campaign netted two feeble ideas: creating a drug czar to coordinate federal drug efforts and expanding the use of capital punishment.
These nostrums are unlikely to produce any better results. We can't "kill" the problem, and however imaginative an administrator William Bennett, President Bush's designated drug czar, turns out to be, he must have adequate resources and good programs to administer.
The new Administration must avoid prevailing myths and faulty policies in developing a new approach. Intelligent people, fed up with escalating drug-related crimes, have been attracted to the idea of legalizing drugs as a way to cut crime, reduce public expenditures and increase revenues by taxing the sale of illegal drugs. We believe it is a self-deceptive strategy, purporting to solve a problem by defining it away.
Increasing the availability and social acceptance of drugs not only condones but inevitably increase its use. Since the major costs of drug abuse are not law enforcement, but health, safety and productivity costs, making drugs more available inevitably increases society's burdens. If any evidence is needed for this self-evident conclusion, recall our experience with two legal drugs: alcohol and tobacco. Substantial tax revenue is raised and there is no significant illegal market for these drugs. But tobacco and alcohol are the leading causes of preventable death and illness in the United States, costing the nation more than all illegal drugs put together.
A focus on curbing the drug supply is also illusory policy. Interdiction (the label for this approach) calls for getting tough with supplier nations such as Colombia (cocaine and marijuana) and Burma (heroin). President Nixon had notable success in getting Turkey out of the opium business and President Ford had similar, but more limited, success in curbing the supply of heroin from Mexico.
But the idea is not as simple as it sounds. First, U.S. relations with other nations are always complicated by the interplay of competing interests, some of which inevitably conflict with the drug issue. Second, international drug traffickers easily adapt to changing conditions in one growing area or even in one nation, since drug-producing crops can be grown worldwide. We could build a Chinese wall around the United States without slowing the supply of drugs--with $100 billion (according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) a year coming from inside the wall, there would be countless tunnels.
We can't even interdict domestic suppliers. Taking out of the illegal market one or two drug-producing areas, confiscating a handful of labs or filling a prison full of sellers will not cut the supply of drugs so long as extraordinary financial incentives continue. Furthermore, partial supply reduction raises the cost of drugs, and thus contains the seeds of its own destruction: the higher the cost of illegal drugs, the greater the incentive to the suppliers. We must emphasize law-enforcement efforts but we cannot rely on them to solve the problem.
An idea that enjoys wide public support is the imposition of tough criminal penalties for drug sellers. This approach will make only a dent in the problem: Tough penalties applied to a tiny percentage of drug sellers (the few who are caught) are not effective in deterring people driven by the more certain and immediate lure of billions of dollars.
If cutting off the supply of drugs, giving drugs away cheaply or Draconian sentences are futile strategies, is there an alternative? We think there is: We would focus resources on cutting demand of the casual as well as the hard-core drug abuser. The hard question for the 1990s is how to reduce that demand.
An effective policy must include two features: identification (police work and private testing) and prevention (punishment and treatment). Drug users must be identified at early stages, given compelling reasons to quit and offered help in achieving that goal. Tough prevention methods, private and public, are required.