WASHINGTON. — Washington -- It was a lonely, almost forlorn plea New York Mayor David Dinkins made to the Democratic National Convention -- to feel the pain ''of tiny babies who crave deadly crack cocaine the way that other babies crave their mother's milk.''
The Democratic platform grazed the issue of illegal drugs with a single sentence suggesting expanded drug counseling and treatment. President Bush is mostly mum on the subject these days, notwithstanding the bravado-laden pledge in his inaugural address -- that ''this scourge will stop.''
By any rational standard, the Bush ''war on drugs,'' at $12.7 billion a year, twice what the Reagan administration spent, is a dismal failure. Despite some cutback in middle-class drug use, the epidemic of crack cocaine has made bullet-plagued Beiruts out of inner-city neighborhoods. Heroin use is reportedly rising alarmingly, from about 500,000 users a year to more than 750,000 now.
Bill Clinton has so far failed to offer a clear alternative to the Bush policy and its heavy emphasis on drug sweeps, long prison sentences, swarms of planes and boats and police training for South America.
Why are the candidates silent? Perhaps they think the suburbs, where the votes are, don't want to be bothered by the inner cities' plight. Politicians high and low do fear the ''law-'n-order'' crowd jumping down their throats if they talk rehabilitation instead of repression.
Yet if there was ever a moment for change, this ought to be it. Even tough prosecutors and cops are quietly acknowledging that interdiction and street-level drug sweeps are an abject bust in choking off the drug trade or driving drug sales off the nation's street corners.
What's more, federal drug prosecutions and the rash of mandatory sentencing laws passed coast to coast in the '80s have only succeeded in cursing America with the civilized world's highest incarceration rate.
''The drug problem is a societal problem,'' says Michael Murphy Jr., the Morris County, N.J., prosecutor. ''Swift and sure punishment for drug offenders is essential,'' adds Mr. Murphy, but it's ''simplistic to think the criminal justice system can solve the problem on its own.''
There's even growing, gnawing fear that police and prosecutors have concentrated so much on drug cases that other serious and dangerous criminals -- robbers, rapists and assailants -- are less likely to be caught and imprisoned than in times past.
At the same time, prisons overflowing with convicted drug-offenders are placing a horrendous burden on government budgets, with pitiful results in reducing drug trafficking.
Evidence is growing that drug rehabilitation programs, whether offered on the street or behind bars, do work for many addicts. ''The bad news,'' says Princeton University's John DiIulio, ''is that we have all these guys in custody. The good news is that with treatment we can turn a lot of them around.''
Harvard drug specialist Mark A. R. Kleiman would have us think anew by offering treatment and probation to drug-addicted thieves and robbers -- as long as they pass frequent drug tests. Mr. Kleiman estimates that if three-fourths of those offenders actually stopped using drugs, crime would drop dramatically and half the cocaine market would disappear.
And concern is growing about the deep social costs of our present course. San Francisco writer Jonathan Marshall notes:
''The 'war on drugs' has magnified the sense of alienation and economic despair among inner-city residents, particularly minorities. The drug war has wreaked havoc by treating whole classes of Americans as potential suspects, subject to harassment and abuse; and by sweeping vast numbers of petty drug users and sellers into the criminal justice system, thereby branding them as convicts and often destroying their hopes of becoming productive citizens.''
Alfred Blumenstein, dean of Carnegie-Mellon's School of Urban and Public Affairs, reports the drug war triggered an exponential growth rate in arrests of blacks compared to whites. In New York City, 92 percent of drug-charge arrestees are either black or Hispanic.
Small wonder that resentment against established authority has ballooned in black and Hispanic inner-city neighborhoods subjected to a barrage of searches, sweeps and undercover operations.
But is a radically changed national policy likely soon? Not from debate in this presidential campaign. President Bush has an entrenched policy to defend. Governor Clinton offers us passing references to the fact that there's a drug problem: He talks about 100,000 new cops on the street in a nationwide community policing program that could help. But he is yet to challenge the president directly on the issue.
Something, though, has to break soon. It's getting just too glaringly wrong to continue multibillion-dollar national outlays on a misdirected and failed drug war. We'll have to think far more seriously about our inner-city social tinder box. Strapped states are already being forced to put the brakes on runaway prison building.
Don't expect the liberal reformers to drive us to our senses on this issue. More likely it will be cops, prosecutors and judges passing the word that today's drug-war tactics simply aren't working. The more the law-enforcement community tells that truth, the safer the ground will be for political leaders to suggest creative new drug-combating ideas. It can't happen too soon.
Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist.