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Put the spotlight on drugs

Arguing over the nation's drug policy can be helpful if it results in renewed focus on this insidious problem and in a plan that works.

President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich verbally sparred recently over the administration's policy in separate radio addresses. Both agree drugs are a serious problem. How to drastically reduce the problem is what is at issue.While Clinton claims he is laying out plans to reduce illegal drug use by 50 percent in the next decade, Gingrich is ridiculing the proposal as a "hodgepodge of half-steps and half-truths."

Clinton's plan probably isn't as good as he professes nor as bad as Gingrich claims. That is why,after the merits of the plan are debated, a bipartisan effort needs to begin to ensure that something of consequence occurs.

As the president, Clinton needs to set the tone. He has not focused nearly enough on the drug problem during his first term. He needs to therefore do a much better job in the second term.

And while it's a wonderful sound bite to say that the fight against drugs "must be waged and won at kitchen tables all across America," as Clinton did in his radio address, much needs to be done at all law enforcement levels to help win the fight. There are many dysfunctional families in which counseling about drugs will not take place.

According to Gingrich, drug use among teenagers has increased by 70 percent during the five years Clinton has been in office. That is an alarming figure. Just as alarming is the apparent ease with which teenagers can obtain drugs. "When nine out of 10 high school seniors tell us it is easy to obtain marijuana, clearly we are not doing enough . . . when eighth-grade use has increased by 150 percent since 1992, clearly we are not doing enough," Gingrich said.

A combined effort of family, community and government is needed to make a serious dent in the drug problem. But that is surely an effort worth undertaking. The fight against drugs has no room for petty politics.

After the wrangling and debates, a comprehensive program that is adequately funded needs to be put in place.

As White House drug policy chief Barry McCaffrey noted in a follow-up news conference, government alone cannot solve the national drug problem. "We look forward to working with Congress, state and local government and the private sector to forge a bipartisan and truly national response to the drug problem," McCaffrey said.

That's a good, comprehensive approach. Somebody, however, needs to take a strong lead to get those various entities to work together and utilize their skills to stamp out drugs. That somebody is Bill Clinton.