When they write the story of how this city finally won its war against drugs, don't expect it to be told in tons of drugs interdicted or of major distribution centers smashed or of drug kingpins hauled off to prison.
It's far more likely that the story will record the success of a grass-roots effort, beginning in earnest in the early months of 1988, when hundreds of ordinary people decided that they were mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more.
This isn't what President Reagan had in mind when he said the other day that the "tide has turned" in the drug war.
It may be that war is a misleading analogy to begin with. Surely the scourge of drugs has some of the attributes of international war. But it also has some of the qualities of a deadly epidemic, some of the qualities of a crime wave and some of the qualities of -- well, sin.
Despite the president's optimism, the fight isn't going well at the level of international war. We may know the countries from which the invading armies come, and even the names of some of the most dangerous generals: Panama's Manuel Noriega, for instance, whose indictment for drug trafficking has done more to destabilize Panama than to staunch the flow of killer drugs to America.
That is true, in part, because drug trafficking is a peculiar form of war; its assaults are effective only through the cooperation of the intended victims. As long as that cooperation exists -- as long as there is a demand for drugs and huge sums of money to be made from supplying that demand -- there will be suppliers and ways for them to penetrate our defenses.
We also need to act on the health problem that drug abuse represents. Indeed, building new drug treatment facilities may prove more effective, against ordinary street crime as well as against drug trafficking specifically, than putting the same money into new prison cells.
But for me, the most encouraging news is what is happening in some of this city's most drug-ridden neighborhoods. Worried parents and preachers, vulnerable teen-agers and concerned community leaders have declared their own war on drugs. They have served notice that they will no longer tolerate the infiltration of pushers into their communities. They have pledged to help police close down "crack houses" and other places known to be dealing drugs.
They won't argue with the president's pledge to do something about the international menace of drug dealing, but they recognize their own need to do something about the enemy agent nearer at hand: the big-spending dealer bent on recruiting or poisoning their children.
And also to do something about their children. Intellectuals may ascribe all manner of psychological motives to Lonise Bias' national crusade to educate young people on the evil of the drugs that claimed the life of her superstar son Len. Sophisticates may titter at Nancy Reagan's exhortation to "Just say no."
But some Washington parents are coming to realize that no amount of law-enforcement vigilance can protect their children from drugs unless the children themselves have been taught the necessity of resistance.
It goes even beyond that. As Eric Knight, the suspended football coach at Forestville High School, told a gathering of the school's seniors (after the drug-induced death of a star athlete), girls who accept expensive gifts from boys only encourage them to hustle drugs. Catholics used to call it the "near occasion of sin" -- the person or agent who tempts someone into sin.
That quaint category must surely include the mothers who accept cash and clothing from their teen-age sons, taking care not to ask where the money comes from. But even without asking, they know; it comes from the same evil source that already has cost the lives of some three dozen D.C. residents so far this year.
Certainly the war on drugs must be fought by federal, state and local agencies. But it must be fought on the neighborhood and personal levels as well.
That is what a small army of local Washingtonians has started to do. Can they win? I don't know. They are fighting a powerful, and powerfully financed, enemy. But if the rest of us will join their home-front effort, I think we've got a chance.
Indeed, it may be the only chance we have. BY ELEANOR MILL 27 LINES BELOW INDENT