In school they used to say the United States never lost a war. There was the Revolutionary War, then the War of 1812, then that thing with Mexico, then the Civil War (which, in the North, was considered a victory), the Spanish-American one, World War I and then, of course, World War II. Korea was something of a draw, and while Vietnam was a loss, there's no doubt that we could have won had we really wanted to. That leaves one war we have been fighting with everything we have since, it seems, time immemorial -- and that we have lost. I am referring to the War on Drugs. Maybe it's time to throw in the towel.

I think it was Richard Nixon who first declared war on drugs. If that's the case, then we have been fighting this monster, if only in rhetoric, since the late 1960s, mobilized perpetually for the final push. We have hit every beach, arrested hundreds of thousands of people and filled the jails to overcrowding (with the drug war's POWs), inflicted many fatalities (the body count), enlisted the Coast Guard, considered bringing in the Army, stiffened penalties for possession and selling, launched massive educational campaigns (a` la Tokyo Rose), expanded police departments, opened clinics (MASH units), organized task forces (Special Forces) and, in a moment of desperation, named George Bush to head those forces. Yet the war goes on.

In Washington, Mayor Marion Barry has declared war on drugs no fewer than three times in less than two years. The enemy seems not to have noticed. The city appears destined for yet another homicide record this year, with many of the murders drug-related. More and more pushers get arrested, more and more of them get killed, and yet, from the available evidence, all you have to do is slow your car to a creep in certain parts of town and pushers arrive like car hops at an old drive-in restaurant. New York drug operations have even opened Washington franchises.

So what's to be done? Maybe the one thing that has yet to be tried -- the decriminalization of drugs. Let the government provide drugs for those who want them. Such a program would certainly not eliminate drug addiction or usage, but it might -- just might -- eliminate the huge profits drug dealers now make. In other words, let's socialize the drug trade.

Ironically, it's usually conservative, laissez-faire presidents (Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon) who seem least to understand that the drug trade represents the free enterprise system in its purest form. It's totally unregulated and offers the opportunity for enormous profits, if only because the government, by making drugs illegal, ensures that prices remain artificially high. The drug trade rewards the inventive and unscrupulous, making such people unimaginably rich in a relatively short time. With luck, decriminalizing drugs would take the profit out of the business.

Consider what has happened to the Miami Police Department. There, 10 police officers have pleaded guilty to various crimes associated with the drug trade. You can almost feel sorry for the 10. Making $25,000 a year, they arrest drug dealers who are multimillionaires. The pushers go to jail (sometimes), but others take their place. Nothing much changes for the better. Finally, the cops themselves decide to cash in. They seize the receipts of drug dealers. They start selling drugs themselves. They take bribes. The money is incredible: One cop is spending $3,000 a day on a weekly salary of $500. Other cops buy houses with cash. They have terrific cars, stock portfolios, mistresses.

The Miami Police Department says it will tighten up its recruitment procedures. Good. That will help matters, but it won't change the fact that a $25,000-a-year cop, whether an inadequately trained recent hire, as are many of the officers in the Miami case, or a cynical veteran, is going to be mightily tempted by a $1 million bribe. In fact, there's nothing unique about Miami. Just about anywhere you have a flourishing drug trade, you're going to have corrupt cops -- or, in the case of Panama and Colombia, corrupt national governments. There's just too much money out there.

The same profit motive that results in police corruption is going to ensure that for every drug pusher who's put in jail, another will take his place. There's an inexhaustible supply of amoral people looking to make a quick couple of million bucks. We ought to have learned by now that jail is not disincentive enough. About the only thing that will work is to take the profit out of the drug business.

Finally, of course, all drug traffickers work on a kind of commission basis. The more customers they have, the more money they make. There is therefore an incentive for them to try to encourage as many people as possible to use drugs. Remove that commission -- supply drugs free -- and you remove the incentive pushers have to hook others. Not only that, but without his Mercedes-Benz and his flamboyant life style, the pusher might no longer be such an alluring role model for young people.

A plan whereby the government would supply drugs is not intended as a panacea. It would not eliminate drugs -- as it hasn't in England -- and, in a way, it would admit defeat, itself a bitter pill. It would mean, though, that we recognize that the drug problem is with us to stay -- a tenacious enemy that mocks our every effort. When it comes to drugs, we've been making war long enough. It's time we started making sense instead. ::