It is time in our war on illegal narcotics to focus on a new target: not the peasants who grow the coca plants from which the deadly cocaine is derived; not the international traffickers who process the stuff and bring it into the United States; not even the distributors and pushers who make up the retail network.

It's time to move hard on the one crucial element in the chain: those who buy this poison.

Tell me it isn't fair to target the user when it is the major trafficker who does the great damage, and I'll say you're correct. Tell me we shouldn't give carte blanche to the syndicates who manage the dope traffic, and you'll get no argument from me. I wouldn't for a minute argue that we should reduce our efforts against the drug racketeers.

But I would argue, not from fairness but from desperation, that any new effort ought to be focused on drug purchasers.

The fact is, the catalog of ways to curtail the drug traffic is distressingly short. Shorter still is the list of ways that promise to be effective.

The most obvious approaches -- halting production and keeping the stuff out of the country -- share a near-insurmountable difficulty: the enormous profits to be had from drug trafficking. The money is enough to subvert weak governments and enough to finance criminal armies to combat the antidrug efforts of stronger ones. Enough officials in the first category have been bought, and enough in the second have been killed or intimidated into inaction, that there is little hope of a successful effort to halt production.

In addition, given the porousness of this country's borders and the drug traffickers' resources -- diplomatic pouches, innocent-appearing individual smugglers and private (and disposable) planes and boats -- it's hard to imagine a successful campaign to keep the lucrative drugs out of the country. And once they're here, the openness of travel in this country reduces their distribution to virtual child's play.

How much does it take to overwhelm or corrupt an undermanned sheriff's department in a sparsely populated Florida county? How hard is it to persuade an already-intimidated deputy to find a way to occupy himself somewhere else at 9 o'clock tomorrow night?

What disruptions to ordinary vehicular traffic would it take to interdict the flow of narcotics along, say, Interstate 95, through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Washington, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York? It's easy to be misled by reports of huge narcotics "busts" along this eastern artery into supposing that we are seriously interrupting the traffic. The real story is not in those few well-publicized busts but in the common knowledge that the drug dealing in our neighborhoods continues unabated.

It's time to try a new direction. It's time to look at drug users, not as "victims" or as relatively minor players in the drug scene but as the one indispensable element in the drama. Retire the users, and you close down the play.

And how do you do that? By targeting the customers of the open-air drug markets that have turned struggling neighborhoods into war zones. The dealers don't worry about an arrest or a confiscation in the unlikely event they get caught before they melt into the background. It's just another cost of doing their incredibly lucrative business. But the user is another matter. The drug customer, whether a college student, a young professional, a wage earner or a suburban sophisticate, can't melt.

And he can't afford the consequences of getting caught. There is, for him, no profit in the drug market to offset the damage to his reputation or the loss of his (or his parents') car. He has only the prospect of a few minutes' pleasure to balance against the risks of arrest.

I say it's time to increase the risks. Instead of chasing dealers from one floating market to the next, let's chase the customers. Arrest, prosecute and jail them. The law says we can take their cars. So let's take them -- routinely. If you want to leave an opening so that an innocent owner can reclaim the automobile he swears he didn't know was being used for drug procurement, that's okay by me. Once.

But the second time Mr. Innocent's car is used to fetch drugs, send it to the auction yard. My guess is that there won't be many second times.

Of course, it isn't fair to move more harshly against the occasional user than against the professional who makes his living dealing drugs.

But how fair is it to the residents of the neighborhoods to let their children's playgrounds be turned into drug markets? Many of these residents are trying desperately, and with dismaying lack of success, to reclaim their communities and save their children.

It is they, and not the out-of-the-neighborhood thrill-seekers, who deserve our sympathy and our help.

And the best way to help these innocent victims of the drug traffic, and perhaps to make a serious dent in the traffic as well, is to take away the one indispensable participant: the customer.