COMBATIVE,abrasive and endlessly active, William J. Bennett made himself for 20 months the symbol of the federal government's determination to reduce the use of illegal drugs. As he now leaves the administration, he can see some visible improvements. There's good evidence that the number of people using these drugs is down, and not only among the casual consumers. The numbers of emergency room admissions involving drugs have been falling in many cities, as well as the numbers of criminal defendants who, on arrest, test positively.
There are many reasons for this progress, certainly not all of them related to Mr. Bennett and pressure from the feds. Some of the figures suggest that the infatuation with drugs was beginning to fade before he took office. But he and the man who appointed him, President Bush, can take at least modest credit. They tried to give direction to an already growing national consensus that the drug trade was an enemy to be fought everywhere. Earlier in the 1980s, there were plenty of people willing to think that a little cocaine was merely amusing and that it was only the wholesalers -- the kingpins, to use that favorite term -- who ought to be pursued seriously. Mr. Bennett had the good fortune to take up the drug czarship at the point at which people had seen enough damage and enough deaths to understand that the sellers exist only as long as there are buyers. One of Mr. Bennett's most useful decisions was to press hard for moving against users as well as traffickers.
His czarship had its failures as well. His method involved a tendency to overpromise -- and on occasion to sound off like, well, to use his own term, a "gasbag." In the early days, a year and a half ago, the city of Washington was to have been a priority of the crusade. But the czar's interests shifted elsewhere as the highly politicized quarrel over a new jail site dragged on interminably and the rumors about the mayor's addiction grew more audible.
Mr. Bennett is wrong, incidentally, in calling the city a "basket case" last year before he got into the case. Washington has a strong police department that was doing good and courageous work then as now. One deeply dismaying peculiarity of the drug phenomenon is that as actual usage declines, drug-generated street violence continues to rise. Neither Mr. Bennett nor anyone else has a good solution to that other than to increase the police force.
The allure of drugs continues to be a profound menace in this country. But for the first time since this epidemic began, there's now a sense that it is no longer wildly out of control. That's a great difference from two years ago, and many thousands of Americans, including Mr. Bennett, can take satisfaction in the contributions that they have made to it.