MAYOR ANTHONY Williams has laid down a bold marker for gauging his fight against drug trafficking. In a meeting with hundreds of young people at a Northeast community forum, he declared without qualification that "drug dealers are not going to be on the streets while I'm mayor." Given the open-air drug markets now operating in the city, it was an amazing pledge.

Mayor Williams must let the public in on his plans. After all, the effort to rid the city of drug dealers has been made before, with mixed success at best. Notably, the Barry administration resorted in the '80s to street sweeps, arrests and harsh mandatory sentences. In return, the city got jammed court calendars, crowded juvenile detention facilities and jails, and drug abusers by the thousands languishing behind bars without adequate treatment. There was little in the way of a dent in the demand for drugs. Does Mayor Williams intend to return to that?

District residents are accustomed to hearing confident declarations in the war against drugs from both city hall and the White House. They aren't likely to forget President George Bush's inaugural pledge against illegal drugs: "Take my word for it, this scourge will stop." Of course it didn't stop, especially in the nation's capital. Nonetheless, past failures are no reason not to tackle the problem. For compelling reasons, look no farther than the city's robbery, burglary and homicide rates and foster care caseloads. What the city doesn't need, however, is another "seat-of-the-pants" war on drugs.

It just may be possible that the mayor intends to couple aggressive enforcement with increased treatment programs for people hooked on drugs, as well as education and prevention efforts to discourage non-users, especially young people, from starting down that road. We hope that is the case.

It also could be true that the mayor -- confronted with an audience of skeptical youth and community activists -- did not have a well- conceived strategy in mind when he announced his high-profile pledge to "take down drug markets." Let's hope the mayor's concern is backed by a plan. If so, Mayor Williams owes the public his prescription for curing the city's illegal drug scourge.