THERE WAS nothing all that original in his proposal, but Mayor Barry struck the right note in his "State of the District" speech Tuesday. In calling for government as well as citizen action, the mayor declared a "crusade against drugs" to be his "number one priority in 1988." The address was focused on what has become the single most deadly threat to the safety of this city's residents, young and old alike. Drugs, big-crime money and murder have been taking over neighborhoods at a terrifying pace -- and though no speech by a mayor can stem the tide, Mr. Barry's pledge of a "citywide attack" and a summit of regional leaders could help.

"Drugs threaten our stability," said the mayor. "Drugs threaten our safety . . . and drugs threaten the soul of our city." There is no exaggeration here: with alarming speed, the city has become a lucrative drug market violently fought over by competing criminal groups from around the country and the world. Law enforcement authorities, including U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, have warned that the lives of innocent bystanders are increasingly endangered. Mr. diGenova, citing this "new level of violence and danger to the community," has noted that the groups have "no code of conduct" and "do not care who is killed."

Mr. Barry's message was short on details, but his attack seems to include additional programs tailored to various schools, more job training for young people and increased neighborhood activism against drug use. And though his administration is being criticized for cutting back on the "Operation Cleansweep" program of the police, the mayor says he is about to announce new police initiatives against drug dealers.

Only then -- and whenever his other proposals materialize and translate into specific actions -- will residents have a real measure of this latest "crusade." But those Washingtonians who must live in the degradation and gunfire of the urban drug scene are understandably desperate for some shred of evidence that their government and others across the city have a sense of what is happening.