When my friends and I were in the eighth grade, the most influential person in our lives was our school softball coach. He was a genial man, gifted in dealing with boys and we listened intently to what he had to say. One day he told us about drugs, specifically marijuana. He said that if we smoked it just once we would be hooked for life.

The coach was misinformed. When I got to college, I met people who smoked marijuana and did not become addicted. And of those people, none I knew later turned to heroin. Many in my generation therefore concluded that everything they had been told about drugs was wrong. Like the coach, we too were misinformed.

The consequences were tragic. Not only did some of that generation turn to cocaine, thinking that its danger, like those of marijuana, was vastly exaggerated, but they became role models for younger kids. Drugs were extolled in song (LSD in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds)" and incorporated into the antiestablishment revolt triggered by the Vietnam War. Now some of those erstwhile skeptics are dead or wrecked and the model they set for others was, to be charitable, criminal. They were as dumb about drugs as the generation that preceded them.

But that pattern is being repeated. Along with the current panic about a "drug crisis" has come the revival of old canards. Distinctions are not being made. Some antidrug activists talk about marijuana, cocaine and heroin (and even alcohol and tobacco) as if they were one and the same--equally addictive, equally dangerous. When it comes to cocaine, death by overdose is cited as if it were common occurrence when such experts as Dr. Norman Zinberg of Harvard say it is not. Cocaine users apparently know that. Not two weeks after coke killed Maryland University basketball star Len Bias, Cleveland Browns running back Don Rogers died a similar death. Clearly, Rogers -- like many cocaine users -- thought Bias' death was a fluke.

Now the Reagan administration and House Democrats, both politically opportunistic, are gearing up for a new campaign against drugs. Whatever the administration does -- and Nancy Reagan's efforts have already been valuable -- it will be counterproductive if the old scare tactics are revived. Some of what is already being said falls into that category -- equating, say, marijuana with cocaine or arguing that it leads, as day follows night, to heroin addiction. Marijuana is bad enough as it is. No exaggerations are necessary.

The danger is that once again kids might think they have been lied to. A kid who is told that marijuana is both the equivalent of and an inevitable steppingstone to heroin might just learn that it is not. And if he has been lied to about marijuana, then he might conclude that he has been lied to about other drugs. If he finds out that marijuana is not usually addictive (for some, apparently it is), might he not conclude the same thing about cocaine (it almost always is)? And if lots of people are taking coke and not dying, is it wise to tell kids that death is a certain consequence of usage? The ordinary consequences are horrible enough.

American society has often resorted to wholesale remedies in dealing with the harmful pursuit of pleasure. Once, we coped with alcohol abuse by prohibiting that drug completely. It didn't work, and so reality became the mother of sophistication. We distinguish between a single beer and a pint of gin, although we recognize that some people start with one and wind up with the other. Still, most of us don't.

The analogy between alcohol and illegal drugs is an inexact one because the recreational use of wine will not necessarily have the same awful consequences that the recreational use of cocaine almost always has. But the point is that we recognize gradations of danger and don't tell kids something they will discover is false -- that a glass of wine (marijuana) at dinner will surely lead to a pint of gin (heroin) for breakfast.

One generation learned by experience that pushers are helped by well-meaning adults peddling scare stories. The dangers of drugs are real enough and need no embellishment. But if the new antidrug campaign, as welcome as it is, falls into the hands of opportunistic politicians, the lessons of a generation that learned the hard way about drugs will be lost. That generation, once mindlessly infatuated with drugs, has much to answer for. At the very least, its answers should be truthful.