WASHINGTON — THE OVER-ballyhooed War on Drugs seems about to end much like Vietnam -- with indifference and recrimination on the home front and the enemy in possession of the field.
In the midst of dispatching an armada to the Persian Gulf, President Bush said the other day that the drug war remains priority No. 1, an amazing example of today's nonspeak. He will put more resources JimFaininto the gulf in a month than into his "No. 1 priority" in a year, but he is said to be sensitive to the charge that he is not staying the course.
He isn't. When he was hyping drugs on prime-time TV last year, 64 percent of Americans agreed with him this was the most important problem facing the country. That percentage is down now to 10.
Bush's flamboyant drug czar, William Bennett, also is clearly weary of a job he has come to view as a no-win exercise politically. Bennett insists we're making progress, citing the same trend lines that have been evident for five years and were unmistakable in early 1989 when he was screaming how horrible things were. It's true casual drug use is dropping dramatically, particularly among upscale cocaine snorters. True, too, that hard-core addiction is rising -- and spreading from the inner cities to rural areas.
Education about the dangers is largely responsible for what progress has been made. Bennett credits eradication, interdiction and tough sentencing for much of the gain. Few detached observers agree. Supply always seems to keep up with demand.
Drug-related crime may be marginally less, but no one has any idea why. Much of inner Washington remains a battle zone, with kids as young as 13 and 14 gunning each other down. Overall, drugs are just as serious a threat as they've ever been.
My mail, when I write on this subject, is heart-rending. Parents tell of promising children dead of cocaine before they were old enough to defend themselves, of endless tragedies with kids.
Law-enforcement people are the first to say they can't handle the problem. Jails overflow; court dockets are jammed; police, outgunned. Whole neighborhoods are controlled and terrorized.
We will have to increase and redirect resources to get anywhere with this scourge. Education and civic action to rally citizen effort in affected neighborhoods seem the most productive courses. Treatment ought to be vastly increased, but it's always going to be low yield statistically. A 50-percent cure rate is rare.
One easy step would be to recognize that marijuana, while harmful, is not a serious problem. It ought to be legalized, regulated and taxed to the hilt, freeing up many law officers and raising revenue for realistic efforts against cocaine and other malignancies.
It's almost impossible for politicians not to exploit an issue as sexy as drugs, but they do real harm in the process. Whipping up a firestorm on an issue, as Bush and Bennett did last year, without harnessing the emotion to a realistic cure, assures cynicism when the enthusiasm wanes with no accomplishment to point to.