Drugs: First, the Good News


April 19, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. — WASHINGTON -- Barely two weeks in town, Bob Martinez, the administration's new drug-policy director, says measurable trends in the drug war are looking better. As former governor of Florida, he is an experienced politician; he should know better than to start out that way.

His predecessor, William Bennett, had never held elected office, but he was shrewd enough to say when he took the drug assignment that things looked dismal. That positioned him to say that any favorable shift in drug-use statistics showed he was working wonders. Mr. Martinez, having admitted up front that things are improving, is obliged to maintain progress or get a bad report card.

In fact, anyone in that job has only marginal impact on anti-drug operations. The role is exhortation and coordination. Nobody is likely to out-exhort Mr. Bennett, but Mr. Martinez gently states some differences of strategy.

Mr. Bennett, who liked to beat up on Washington when ex-Mayor Marion Barry was the symbol of local government, decided to make the nation's capital a model city. He would focus federal effort here to show what could be done, even in a deeply drug-stressed town, when somebody really tried. The murder rate here, most of it drug-related, was higher when he stepped out than when he stepped in.

Mr. Martinez suggests that focusing on one place is ''like squeezing a balloon'' -- what goes down here pops up there. He wants to concentrate on cutting supply through about five major points of entry, and to emphasize preventive education everywhere. But the breadth of the educational effort doesn't mean it will get most of his office's limited funds, or that it should get most federal, state and local manpower.

With preventive education, ''you get a bigger bang for the buck,'' he said at breakfast yesterday. The audience in schools is already in place, for example, and thousands of volunteers want to spread the gospel. Those combating the supply side, on the other hand, are almost all paid government employees. The work can be dangerous, and eats up more man-hours. Thus it costs much more.

One of Mr. Martinez' enthusiasms is intelligence -- military-style intelligence about the enemy. Before our generals in the desert attacked, they knew where almost every enemy tank was sitting, he says, implying that we should know at least as much about public enemies in the drug trade.

Asked whether he would like more cooperation from the armed services, he notes that they have ''tremendous assets'' for monitoring, and he would like to put them to better use. Later he notes that many suburban, middle-class drug users drive family cars to illegal drug markets -- an obvious opportunity for license-plate photography.

The continuing problem is toughest among those who don't go to school, who don't or can't read, Mr. Martinez says. But he comes closest to raising his voice about those who have the advantages, users who should know better. College students, for instance.

Asked about the recent drug bust at University of Virginia fraternity houses, he says there has been ''a general weakness by university administrations to tackle the problem.'' He is not talking just about Virginia, but everywhere. Universities are lagging in preventive education programs and sanctions against abusers.

Their presidents and administrators ''need to get on with it,'' he says, doing more than merely mounting anti-drug posters on campus. He maintains that some universities have a drug problem because they simply have not tried to fight it.

Then he gets back to the good news: Kindergarten-through-12th-grade school systems have been much more responsive to anti-drug efforts. Overall, popular culture is changing. Television and other media are no longer showing drugs as the ''in'' thing. It used to be rare, he says, to find any organized school group devoted to anti-drug education. Now it's rare to find any school that does not have some ''pro-active'' organization.

Surveys show there are fewer drug users and fewer drug cases in hospital emergency rooms, Mr. Martinez says. But this seeming trend is no reason to let up: drug-education programs ** should run on, because ''there's a renewal of population every year, new young people looking to assert their independence.'' Although his is a political, temporary job, he's in what should be a permanent office.

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