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ARE MAIN U.S. STRATEGIES FOR COPING WITH DRUG PROBLEM REALLY WORKING?

The headline said it all: "12 Hurt in a Fierce Shootout on Drug-Filled Bronx Street." Rival drug dealers, it appeared, had opened fire on each other, in the process sending bullets or buckshot into several bystanders.

The incident, the story went on to say, was one of the "most ferocious shootouts in New York City in recent years."In Los Angeles on a recent weekend, more than 20 people were slain in various violent confrontations, many believed to be drug-related. Similar tales can be heard, every week of the year, from the streets of troubled inner cities.

We are repelled by these things, and scared, and in our fear we Americans vote for a "war" on drugs. We embrace the toughest of jail terms for convicted dealers; we salute our Coast Guard as it swarms along the coast, seeking to nab incoming drug smugglers. More from desperation than anything else, we vote enormous funds to hire more prosecutors, build more prison cells and get even tougher with those responsible for this menace.

For all this effort, however, what have we achieved?

America, by some accounts, has spent $70 billion in combating drug traffic over two decades. Addictive use of heroin and crack cocaine is reportedly dropping; but emergency room treatments for drug misuse have increased notably, and drug-related street crimes have soared.

In the face of this grim evidence, it is fair to ask - and irresponsible not to - whether the main U.S. strategies for coping with drugs are really working. To be sure, advocates of a tougher law enforcement role can cite data showing more arrests, more interceptions and more convictions. Even with these stern measures working, however, the problem in some ways is only getting worse.

Efforts to curb the supply side of the drug pipeline fare scarcely any better. When a drug superdealer can finagle his way out of a prison cell, as Colombia's Pablo Escobar did recently, the word is about that nothing is going to halt this traffic and the fortunes it builds.

America at present has about 1.2 million of its citizens behind bars. Three in every five have committed drug-related crimes. They are lost to society, mostly, yet society must keep paying the enormous bill for housing and feeding them, in dead-end status, for many years.

This drain on America's resources and self-esteem is vast enough, and the damage from drug use and drug crime is horrible enough, that one would think all possible remedies have been seriously explored. Yet this has not happened. The prevailing philosophy, such as it is, continues to focus on interdiction and law enforcement as the twin weapons against drugs. Much less is said about prevention, education and treatment. And the idea of legalizing drugs (thereby erasing the criminal profit margin) is still considered all but unmentionable.

This rigid mindset can only make matters worse. America can build more jails and hire a stream of district attorneys from Boston to Bakersfield; but it still will do no more than dent a flow of drugs that is attracted to every bit of available cash. Arrest one teenage crack punk and 10 more leap up to take his place.

The sociology and economics of the drug trade may be such that it cannot be squelched by the means currently in fashion. If this is true - and if America truly is serious about ending its illicit drug menace - then we owe ourselves at least an honest look at other approaches. We cannot afford to follow policies that aren't working.

Until America opens its eyes and accepts the need to face the drug habit for the menace it is, the emergency is likely to grow more severe. We will see more crack-addicted infants, more spread of AIDS and a withering vulnerability for the blacks and Hispanics who are most prey to the drug subculture.