WHEN ADM. James Watkins took over the leadership of the foundering presidential AIDS commission a few months ago, he promised to get the panel back on track and working hard to produce an informed report within a limited time. He has delivered. The panel's interim report, just released, is a vigorous call for action at the state and federal levels. It usefully redirects the AIDS discussion toward the group of victims that is increasing fastest: IV drug users, their sex partners and their children.

Gay people have been remarkably successful in promoting behavior changes that reduce the risk of AIDS. Intravenous drug addicts have not responded in the same way. But from statistics in this city alone it is known that many thousands of addicts want rehabilitation help and cannot get it. Adm. Watkins suggests priority attention to this group. Of the $2 billion in additional yearly spending recommended by the AIDS commission, $1.5 billion would be earmarked for treatment programs for addicts. This makes sense. Not only are addicts infected with the virus at a high rate, they are the group most responsible for spreading the disease to others outside the high-risk population.

Appropriations for AIDS research have risen dramatically in recent years. President Reagan has this year called for a 38 percent increase in federal funds to fight the disease. In the case of research, there is a legitimate debate about how much money scientists can use effectively in a given year without waste or duplication. Some knowledgeable people suggest that current allocations for this purpose may be as high as is practical now. But there is no debate about the need for programs to rehabilitate intravenous drug users and for another commission priority, hospice and outpatient services for those with AIDS.

The question for policy makers is whether, in light of severe budget restrictions, the money can be found without harming some other worthy federal program. But that is not a problem for commission members. They are properly concerned with telling the government what should be done, not how to find the money to do it. Their primary recommendation has the double-barreled appeal of being directed not only at AIDS but also at drug addiction and at the terrible crime that comes with it.