ONE DAY A FRIEND and I were going to lunch when we passed a street vendor selling drug paraphernalia -- everything but the drugs themselves. It was a colorful little stand that sold everything you might want in the way of pipes and roach clips and other dandy things to help you get high, stoned, freaked, spaced, ripped, wrecked or otherwise leave behind the trails and tribulations of the world. My friend looked at the stuff and made a fist. His body went rigid and for a second I thought he might become violent. My friend, you have to understand, lost his son to pot.

I am playing with words a bit. He actually "lost" him for about a year. The kid went up in smoke -- a fog or haze of marijuana high from which he would not come down. He smoked in the morning and he smoked at school, and his inner spring, or whatever you want to call it, wound down. He moped, did nothing -- just stayed high. In about a year, a hunk of his life was gone and no one could account for it.

So my colleague just stopped and stared at the vendor in the way of a man who has met his enemy. It was for me a new way to look at the vendors -- at the whole notion of selling drug paraphernalia.

This has now become something of an issue. In Washington, the largest durgstore chains no longer sell cigarette paper, and in the suburbs bills are pending that would outlaw the sale of all drug paraphernalia. Georgia, Indiana, North Dakota and two muncipalities have already done that and in Congress a model bill has been prepared and hearings have been scheduled. The drug problem, thank God, is about to be solved.

On the face of it, the proposals make sense. We have for too long talked out of both sides of our mouths about drugs, and the message, especially for kids, has been confusing.We outlaw the stuff, but allow the sale of its paraphernalia -- items like bongs for which there is no other purpose but to enhance the pleasures of marijuana. At the very best, doing away with so-called head shops is what George Wallace used to call sending a message.

This, in fact, is the view of my friend's son -- the erstwhile pothead. He not only frequented a certain Washington head shop, he was the proud owner of something like half-a-dozen bongs -- one of which he used to take to school in his briefcase. He used them in the morning and at school and a night, and he had a vocabulary full of words with "B" in it -- "Wake up and "B," he used to say. The bong was an important part of his life and the store that sold the bong -- the legal, prosperous right-out-there-in-the-open store reinforced his thinking that society was not serious about drugs.

"The store really encouraged me," he says simply. He wouldn't mind if they were closed.

But it is not all that easy. There are some constitutional questions to take into consideration -- matters of free speech. It is hard to assign criminal intent to inanimate objects and it is hard to say that a mirror with the words "coke" on it is illegal, but one with no words on it is not.

All this could be worked out and maybe it might even be worth doing if anything could be accomplished by it. But there is nothing to be gained and it is wrong to set a policy just to deal, really, with kids and those who abuse drugs. There are something like 45 million Americans who have used the stuff and 15 million who use it routinely, and they, in effect, have already made their decision -- they like drugs, and most of them don't abuse them.

It is somewhat the same thing with alcohol. There are many more alcoholics than drug addicts -- many more teen-age boozers than potheads -- yet we live with the stuff, tolerate the enormous social costs of alcoholism, and make no attempt to close up bar shops or even to end the advertising of beer and wine. We tried prohibition once and it didn't work and it isn't working with drugs, either.

The head shops and the street vendors are symbols -- not the real thing. The young man who was once a pothead is no more, having passed through both stages with a head shop within walking distance of his home. It will change nothing to shut the shops and kick the vendors off the streets. We are acting like the Victorians who draped the legs of pianos lest thoughts turn to sex. The problem, we now know, was not pianos or sex but Victorians. It is the same with us and drugs.

We have already closed our minds.