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Bush Plans to Spend Millions Arresting Drug Dealers and Treating Addicts. Doesn't He Know What the Experts Say? : NOTHING WORKS

May 07, 1989|STANLEY MEISLER | Stanley Meisler is a staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau.

JAMES A. VAN HORN JR. sits at a table in the spacious Congressional Room of the Capital Hilton in Washington, listening as a parade of federal bureaucrats prescribe their latest remedies for America's drug problem. The husky, heavily bearded mayor of Artesia doesn't need to be reminded of the facts that brought him here: The county of Los Angeles has 80,000 known gang members. That's the equivalent of four Army divisions, he'll tell you. They control the streets and franchise the drug trade. The police are outmanned and outgunned.

So far, there have only been a few murders, only one drug-dealing gang in Van Horn's predominantly working- class, industrial community. But, as he likes to say: "The hoodlums of Los Angeles don't know any boundaries."

So heavily does the problem of drugs weigh on the spirits of Van Horn and most American mayors that they have changed the name of their annual "National Conference on Crime" in Washington this year to "National Conference on Crime and Drugs." And most invoke the imagery of war when they call on the federal government to help them eliminate the scourge of drugs. "The country doesn't need a federal narcotics czar. It needs a supreme allied commander," Van Horn tells the mayors. He envisions that commander leading an army with a single-minded mission: to squelch the drug hoodlums and wipe out the supply of drugs.

But what he hears from the experts he'd hoped to count on to lead the war against drugs drives him to fury. Some of the federal bureaucrats in the forefront of the war are urging the mayors to focus on cutting the demand for drugs, not the supply.

"I've been in law enforcement for 24 years," Thomas C. Kelly, the smiling, smooth-shaven deputy administrator of the federal government's Drug Enforcement Administration, tells the mayors, "but I'm not ashamed to tell you that law enforcement is not the answer to our problem."

On hearing that, Van Horn steps up to a microphone near his table and bellows into it angrily. "You see, guys, the Viet Cong is abroad in our society," he shouts. "We have guerrillas in the street armed with AK assault rifles. Our job now is to get our streets back." The mayor demands that the United States recall its troops from Europe, where, he says, they are unwanted anyway, and enlist them in the fight against drugs. All the money saved from closing bases overseas could then fund more police. "What we don't need," he says to a reporter later, "are bureaucrats who sit in Washington and pontificate about demand. I'm sick of it."

The meeting of the nation's mayors reflects a bitter truth about the nature of the country's fearsome drug problem: While public pressure mounts and politicians sound ever-more-strident calls for a renewed war on drugs, a deep sense of pessimism pervades the ranks of the specialists who deal most directly with narcotics and narcotics addicts. They've been thwarted, they say, at every turn.

Peter Reuter is an Australian researcher for the RAND Corp. whose work is highly regarded by specialists on all sides of the narcotics field. "At the moment," he says, sitting in his book-lined office in Washington, "the conventional wisdom is (that) nothing works. It's a view that comes out of despair."

Reuter does not share this despair completely, but he contributed to it last year with a pair of reports crammed with statistical evidence indicating that the much-publicized patrolling of borders and policing of the streets during the past eight years have failed to damage the drug trade significantly.

President Bush is not ready to accept this dismal view. He and federal drug czar William J. Bennett often invoke furious allusions to war when they talk about drugs. Last month, in his first dramatic act as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Bennett excoriated the Washington drug scene as being "out of control," scorned the leaders of the city and sent a task force of federal agents into the battle. Bennett's tone was so belligerent that Rep. Lawrence J. Smith (D-Fla.) mocked him for trying to act like "a supercop with a red cape and blue suit."

Despite all the rhetoric, however, Bush and his officials acknowledge that the paramilitary approach so dear to the hearts of many politicians falls short of a complete answer. And there is little doubt that Bennett, as he develops the national drug-control strategy he's required to outline under the 1988 law that created his job, will underscore the more soft-spoken themes already voiced by the DEA's Kelly and by the President.

Bush proclaimed in a Feb. 10 address to a joint session of Congress that "the scourge of drugs must be stopped." He asked for almost a billion dollars more in spending "to escalate the war against drugs . . . on all fronts." He said the money should be spent on border controls, tough law enforcement, education and research.

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