In cautioning the White House staff against violation of the drug laws, the president has read rightly the case of Dr. Peter Bourne. For the case constitutes a warning.

It demonstrates that there is raging in this country a lively drug politics, heavy with vested bureaucratic and private interests. As a result, the taking of drugs, even marijuana, cannot be treated - as some White House staffers imagine it should be - as a private affair.

Drug politics has developed around an evolving but uncertain national transition. The country is moving, in zigzag fashion and with public opinion unclear about what it wants, from absolute prohibition of drugs to control and regulation. Already 10 states have passed statutes removing marijuana consumption from the area of criminal liability. Another 20 have such legislation in the works. Once consumption of marijuana is legitimized, it will be hard to forbid distribution, and once distribution is legalized, a regime of control will have to be devised for other drugs.

Three different groups have an intense interest in the transition from prohibition to control. First there are the millions of marijuana users represented by their organized lobby, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. The consumers favor the end of prohibition as rapidly and irreversibly as possible. That way they will be immune from legal sanction, and able to buy the stuff more safely and cheaply. The distributors want to hold their position until prohibition is over. That way they will maintain their stake in a billion-dollar business that is already crowding out liquor with younger people. So strong is this interest that it prompts payments to those who work for decriminalization.

On the other side is a part - the police part, at least - of the anti-narcotics bureaucracy at the national, state and local levels. The narcotics police tend to equate the end of prohibition with a kind of moral degeneracy - the more so as the evolution threatens their function in life.

The drug-law enforcers have recently been fighting an all-out battle against the move away from prohibition. Grand juries in Arlington, Atlanta and Miami are currently looking into cases involving distributors of marijuana and cocaine. One object of the inquiries is the use of the revenues - including possibly donations to political campaigns.

As the president's chief adviser on drug policy, Dr. Bourne was in the thick of all this contention. He favored decontrol of marijuana use, and thus became an object of suspicion to the law-enforcement people. He opposed measures to control the marijuana traffic, and thus alienated some of the consumers and distributors.

All these forces came into play when Dr. Bourne prescribed a dose of Quaalude for his executive assistant, whose identity he tried to mask under a fictitious name. It may have been an accident that an officer of the Virginia Health Department was present when the prescription was presented - also that the officer arrested the woman trying to fill the prescription. But the special vigilance in Prince William County was well prepared. It was certainly no accident that details of the case were leaked by the local officials to the press.

Similarly with the stories that Dr. Bourne and other White House staff members sniffed cocaine at parties. Those stories were substantiated by NORML officials in the apparent hope of nailing what they perceived to be a waffling administration to its previous stand in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.

Given this contention between interested parties for the favor of an uncertain public, there is no merit in the claim that the taking of drugs by White House staff members is a private affair. Persons who work at the White House are not conscripted. They volunteer for the jobs, usually in the spirit of calculated self-interest.

They want the limelight, and implicity undertake to live in ways approved by prevailing morality. To assert some private reservation in mid-course is plain dishonest. Those who seek the goldfish bowl, and then complain about being in the goldfish bowl, speak with forked tongue. So if, as is widely rumored here, there is more to the story of drugs at the White House, the president will have to take very strong action.