IT WAS A WHILE AGO, and we were talking at a dinner party about Washington and politics and, eventually, Peter Bourne and then, of course, drugs. We all went on about drugs because we know about drugs, you simply can't admit nowadays ignorance of drugs, and there was someone there who was younger - call him Peter. He more or less said we didn't know anything at all about drugs. He smiled and said he happened to be on them at the moment.

Jeez, someone said, you can't be: and no, someone said, you're putting us on. Peter's girlfriend, down the table from him, giggled. They were like a couple sharing a secret. Yes, he is, she said. So is she, he said. We all looked at each other. We all reached for our white wine.

Peter went on, Peter had the floor now. He said he gets high a great deal of the time - maybe most of the time. He likes to be high and he thinks there's nothing wrong with being high, and the only time he is not high is when he has some serious business to conduct. After that, he gets high, and he stays high until business intrudes and he has to deal with the real world on its own terms. Some people are slaves to commerce.

We are all silent now. We are all disapproving. The war correspondents among us and the political to say. We are, we have to admit, somewhat shocked, Peter, we feel, has missed the point. The point was never to make drugs something ordinary. The point was to keep them something special, to remember that they are vaguely political in nature, linked somehow to an unpopular war and to stodgy university administrations, and ultimately, to the silliness that persists in keeping them illegal. It was never meant to be the sort of thing you did all the time - not before dinner, for crying out loud, but after. Dinner is for conversation.

Peter has enjoyed shocking us. He is intent on making his point. He says that a lot of people are high all the time. He says he can spot them on the street and that he sees them in places like the post office or the bank where the work is often dull and routine. He tells us to look carefully next time at the bagger in the supermarket or the guy who pumps the gas. Look carefully, he says. He smiles. It is a wonderful smile. Peter, I have to tell you, can really smile.

Afterward, I start to look around for the stoned people. Where are they? I ask people. Peter gets confirmed in spades. A colleague tells me about her younger sister and how she is high all the time. A mother tells me that many of her daughters' friends smoke dope routinely, and that a party invitation comes to the house with coded instructions to bring your own dope. A friend has a son who has spent the last two years of his life in a dope-induced fog.

Then, in Montgomery County, the police do what they should do - they begin arresting kids for smoking dope in and around the schools. They arrest something like 117 in the last several weeks and you have to believe that they have just scratched the surface - just got the really dumb ones who smoke in front of the school. I mean, don't these kids know what the bathrooms are for? I talked to a principal to try to get some fix on the situation and he tells me that one kid told him he's dropped acid over 100 times. The principal asks him why he does it. The kid said it makes him feel good.

It's all a bit too much. You feel that there is something wrong about being high all the time - grocery store bagger or student. It somehow grates, violates the Protestant ethic, runs counter to the national moral fiber or something. You cannot feel good all the time. It is somehow not right. Anyway, speaking just for myself, I can't write anything worthwhile under the influence of anything - even a beer, and I don't know of a writer who can, the vast literature to the contrary notwithstanding.

The thing is that dope has this special mystique - summons up a special emotion. Substitute the word booze for dope and you'll have an entirely different reaction. There are, of course, people who are drunk a lot and drink on the job and who drink as much as they can because, like the kid with acid, they like the way it feels, we do not go crazy over them and we do not, if they are kids, raid the school, dragging out the drunks and the kids who have sneaked some wine in the bathroom.

Drugs somehow are different, and while they, are in fact different - it's easier, for instance, to hide a marijuana cigarette than a fifth of scotch - the main difference is in the way they are viewed. Only when we speak of drugs like marijuana do we not distinguish between adult usage and use by children, between use in moderation and abuse. Everyone is in the same illegal boat - the adult and the child, one setting a lousy example of sorts to the other. But there are differences and it is time we recognize them.

What you have here is a tragic situation. You have a situation where the kids waste their days high on some drug, learning nothing, experiencing nothing worthwhile, treading water, going nowhere on the path to maturity.It doesn't really matter if they get their high from drugs or from booze, or, to be nostalgic, from airplane glue. What matters is that kids are in trouble and it only tends to confuse things where the situation is referred to as a drug problem, and the blame misplaced on something like marijuana. It is not a drug problem anymore than it's an alcohol problem or a glue problem.

It's a children problem.