As the vicious slayings within's the city's drug underworld increase and police officials respond with a controversial plan to enhance their officers' lethal weaponry with 9mm semiautomatic guns, the fears and frustrations of many city residents escalate.

Adding to some people's concerns over the drug and crime epidemic is the city's new plan to give addicts bleach to sterilize their syringes as a way to help stem the spread of AIDS. Will this program work, some ask, or will it encourage greater drug use?

Furthermore, the drug epidemic doesn't stop at the city's borders. Fairfax and Montgomery county police seized more than double the drugs last year that they confiscated in 1986. Cocaine, they report, is bought and sold in suburban houses, shopping centers and restaurants.

Indeed, many people are so frustrated with the threat that drugs increasingly pose to life and limb that they are starting to revisit an old question. Won't legalizing drugs help solve the problem? Their arguments go something like this: Prohibition didn't work and those laws had to be repealed. Even the once lucrative illegal numbers games have dropped dramatically since the lottery has been legalized in most states. Decriminalizing drugs would take the gold from the $200 billion underground economy.

In the past, I airily waved off such arguments because I was convinced that legalizing drugs was surrendering the war to the most base elements and was a heartless, immoral stance for our government to take. But today's message is so different -- the problem has gone beyond growing addiction to an enlarged magnitude of violence, murder and danger. In an economic structure that has virtually failed poor people in the last eight years, increasing numbers of youths dumbly deal drugs, some helping their families with the proceeds.

Moreover, the United States has been disturbingly unaggressive. Now Jose I. Blandon, a former top aide to Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, charges CIA corruption, collusion and failures in the U.S. war on drugs in Central America. Since we have not been successful with anything else, would a test period of legalization be worth a try?

I decided to check in with a couple of experts, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics, and staff director Edward Jurith.

"Legalizing has never entered my mind," Rangel says. "We first started with the distribution of methadone but we haven't reduced the number of addicts; it mostly encourages drug abuse and there is very little rehabilitation."

Adds Jurith, "Putting government in the business of regulating the sale and distribution of drugs won't eliminate abuse. The medical community has made the decision that these drugs are dangerous unless used under proper supervision."

Rangel likened even the debate to that which the British faced when they legalized opium in China. "It seems to say when you have a problem you can't deal with, legalize it, put it in the poor communities, give them federal subsidies, even drug stamps -- and that's okay."

Instead, Rangel wants to see aggressive foreign policy efforts to help stem the flow of drugs. "You haven't seen this problem lifted to a high level of visibility by {United Nations} Ambassador Vernon Walters or Secretary of State George Shultz. We have a special assistant secretary of state just for international narcotics matters, but you never hear this person saying anything.

"With the president going to Mexico this week," continued Rangel, "he should take advantage of this trip and call for the heads of Latin American states to become involved in the drug war. Secretary Shultz should call personally on their foreign ministers. Indeed, this nation should have an international summit on the subject."

As I reflected on the informed passion of these two men, my long-held stance against legalization was reinforced. But the country simply has to take politics out of the interdiction effort, which has failed in part because official corruption is too often aided by our own intelligence agencies in the name of "national security."

In addition, the nation must embark on an effective educational campaign to reduce demand. "Just say no" may sound okay, but what is needed are programs to teach people healthy life styles. Finally, the government simply has to come to the aid of big cities such as Washington, New York, Detroit and Chicago, where the drug problem is producing crime and chaos in the streets. And while I sanction the stopgap measure of giving addicts bleach to sterilize their syringes as a way of stemming AIDS, it would be a mistake to think of it as a substitute for treatment programs and rehabilitation.

For this is war -- closer and more frightening than the Nicaraguan conflict. And the stakes are high: Society cannot flourish or meet the competitive demands of the future with a monkey on its back.