The approach of the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office to fighting drugs this year was on display as deputies swept the county one morning last week, arresting 24 suspected drug users and small-time dealers of cocaine, LSD, marijuana and other drugs.

The raids targeted homes from Sterling to west of Purcellville and pushed the department's number of drug arrests this year to almost 200, nearly double the 109 arrests in 1989, police said.

The approach boils down to this: Scare the users away from buying and the market will start to disappear.

"If you don't have drug buyers, you're not going to have drug dealers," said Lt. Jeff Brown, supervisor of the narcotics unit. "I want them to be scared to death to buy. Frankly, I want them to go somewhere else."

The Sheriff's Office traditionally has conducted investigations aimed at arresting dealers. While that remains a goal, officials said, the department this year has geared its investigations toward users. The arrest of a user deters others and often helps officers cultivate informers, they said.

"That's where you get most of your contacts," Sheriff John R. Isom said. "They frequently lead to others."

This year, the department has increased the average number of deputies working in the drug unit from about three or four to about five or six, officials said. Those deputies use traffic stops, undercover purchases and search warrants to investigate drug users, officials said.

The department has executed 37 search warrants, confiscated 15 cars and seized two homes, 25 guns and cash from 16 suspects, police said.

Although Loudoun's drug problem isn't nearly so bad as those in areas closer to Washington, the rapid rise in population in recent years has led to an increase of drug use in the county, Brown said.

Police say there are no exact figures on the increase. The number of drug-related arrests has risen sharply since 1986, when the department arrested 84 suspects. Brown said drug use in the county's high schools does not appear to be a problem. "The only thing I'm worried about is LSD," Brown said. "Now they {students} are either really clean kids or they're dopers."

Sgt. William Colavita, a drug enforcement officer who has worked in the department four years, said crack cocaine has replaced powdered cocaine as the county's most used drug. But the department continues to find a range of drugs, he said.

"We're seeing more crack than we've had. We're making more arrests for it," he said. "We haven't seen any heroin. PCP comes and goes, just as LSD does."

Colavita said he can't generalize about who is using drugs in the county. Those arrested in Friday's sweep ranged in age from 19 to 44 and live in all parts of the county, from Sterling to Middleburg and farther west.

Colavita said it has been the best year for drug enforcement since he joined the force in 1986.

"This is the most productive yet," he said. "There's still a long way to go."

Isom could not say exactly how much more the department is spending on drug enforcement this year. He said an increase in the county's funding for personnel and equipment has helped the drug enforcement effort.

The budget for the Sheriff's Office was about $10 million this year. Although the county expects lean times next year, Isom said he doesn't expect any sharp cuts in his department's budget. The Sheriff's Office will use the same approach to drug enforcement next year.

"We know there is a problem," said Deputy Carol Showalter, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office. "And we don't want it to get out of hand."