IT'S HARD TO BE optimistic about President Clinton's efforts to reduce the hard-core drug addictions that have turned some of America's poor communities into reincarnations of the Wild West. Shoot-outs are common and people take it for granted that even the law is susceptible to the financial temptations of so profitable an industry. Less noticeable is what drugs are also doing in more affluent neighborhoods, sapping the goodness out of young lives, marriages and careers.
There was much optimism three years ago when Mr. Clinton appointed a veteran law enforcement officer, Lee P. Brown, who had headed the Atlanta, Houston and New York police departments to be the nation's drug policy director. The feeling was: Who would know better than a cop how to deal with drug dealers? But Mr. Brown was never given a realistic chance to do his job. When he finally quit in December he blamed his failures on the media for glamorizing drug use and on Congress for cutting funds for drug interdiction and treatment.
Mr. Brown couldn't get his finger to also point at the White House, but it was there that the decision was made to slash his office's staff to 25 full-time employees from 146. It was Mr. Clinton's decision to stop using the presidential bully pulpit to continue the public relations blitz that began in the 1980s urging teen-agers not to use drugs. Laissez-faire attitudes have reversed the decline in the use of illicit drugs by teen-agers that occurred between 1985 and 1992. More than 2 million teens now say they use illegal drugs at least once a month.
Thus the task facing Mr. Brown's successor, retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, is even more difficult. It is encouraging that Mr. McCaffrey isn't relying solely on his military background to develop a new anti-drug strategy. He has eschewed the very term "drug war" since his swearing-in earlier this month, saying the analogy he prefers is medical. Drug abuse is a cancer that must be eradicated.
Mr. McCaffrey will get his office staff increased, which is good. The "drug czar" needs more help to regain relevancy. But the general's mission is made more difficult by this being an election year. He must not become lead actor in stage plays written to make Mr. Clinton look like he is effectively fighting drug abuse when he may only be going through the motions.
Pub Date: 3/17/96