IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, my physical education teacher, a very hip guy named Jerry, gathered some of us guys around for a talk before we went off to high school. He told us to remember our values and to remain friends with one another and then his voice got very somber and he told us of the dangers of the locker room. Never accept a cigarette from a stranger, he said. It could be marijuana and we would be "hooked."

This is how I learned about drugs -- about being "hooked." It was years before I took a cigarette from a stranger. I turned them all down. I thought for the longest time that if I smoked a marijuana cigarette -- took just one drag of the evil thing -- I would be hooked. I was not quite sure what "hooked" amounted to, but I thought it had something to do with more and more marijuana cigarettes.

Later, from the movies, I learned more things about drugs. I learned about heroin, which is really being hooked. One shot of that stuff and you had it -- just one. You were hooked. A junkie. An addict. Goodbye, world. You craved the stuff. You sold everything to buy it and then you had to steal for the money and, finally, kill. This is what heroin did to you and it was, as they say, a known fact. No one argued with this truth.

Over the years, though, I grew cynical. I got brave. I smoked grass. I didn't get hooked. I got high and sometimes, to tell the truth, I got sick. After a while, I stopped smoking the stuff, turning instead to white wine. It's more conducive to conversation.

Some years after that, some people I knew were "doing" cocaine. I did not do cocaine and I wondered how they could. Coke was one of the really bad drugs -- way up there with herion. You took it and you were, well, hooked. They said no. They said it was like the garbage I had been fed about marijuana. Maybe yes, maybe no. Sometimes I hear cocaine is addictive, sometimes I hear it is not, but none of the people I know who have used it have wound up in the gutter. As for me, I'm still doing white wine. I try not to abuse it.

Much later, I gave up cigarettes. I had smoked since I was about 14 and one day, to fulfill a solemn promise to my son, I just quit. For a week or so I was in pain, always distracted, and had to take some time off from work. I couldn't concentrate on anything but not smoking and to this day -- four years later -- I still miss cigarettes. That is the truth. I miss them yet and finally I know the meaning of "hooked." I was and I am.

I wrote a column about what it was like to quit smoking and lots of people called to cheer me on. Some had interesting stories to tell. A few of them had quit drugs -- heroin, in fact -- as well as cigarettes. They said quitting cigarettes was by far the harder thing to do. I doubted that. I had seen the movies -- Frank Sinatra rolling around in agony, going cold-turkey. I knew what the truth was.

I mentioned these calls to a doctor I knew. He nodded knowingly and said the people were telling the truth. He said the movies were bunk and that, at the risk of generalizing, it was often easier to quit heroin than most people thought. He said he had first realized this years before while working for the Veterans Administration, preparing for the avalanche of drug-addicted GIs coming back from Vietnam. The avalanche never developed. The hooked had become unhooked.

I know, you're skeptical. But now, there's a report, commissioned by the White House Special Action Office on Drug Abuse Prevention, which says pretty much what the doctor did. It says that nine-tenths of the GIs who regularly used heroin in Vietnam, shed the habit when they got back to the States. The reason for this undoubtedly varied, but mostly it had to do with the difficulty and costs of obtaining heroin in the United States. It's seems it just was not worth the trouble.

But pardon me. This is not what I was taught. I was taught that these people would steal for their habit -- kill. We had to get them off the streets and into the jail. We have to support at enormous expense a massive apparatus to prevent drugs from coming into this country and arrest or treat those who use the stuff. It makes you wonder.

I am, I admit, confused. I don't know anymore what drugs do and to whom.I have the feeling that I've been lied to by the government and the drug enforcement who think, maybe, that if we're not convinced drugs are the contemporary equivalent of the black plague, we'll turn off the funding.

In the meantime, though, I don't have enough real knowledge to pass judgement as a citizen or a voter or a father. All I know is that everytime I turn on the television there's a war on this drug or that drug. I suggested a different war. I suggest the government level with us about drugs.

Call it the war on ignorance.