IT WAS PURE good fortune, not a months-long investigation, that led police to the recent arrests of two men in connection with one of the District's biggest cocaine finds. But the two suspects, who police said were caught red-handed at a Southwest Washington apartment used to process cocaine, are at large. Why? Both were able to post bonds of only $5,000 at the police station they were taken to. They then skipped a federal court hearing, and neither has been seen since.

In the world of illicit drug trafficking, $5,000 is a mere pittance. But that is the bond level set at D.C. police precincts for that crime, and no one thought to rouse a judge from sleep to have a higher bond set. Now, U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova says that he and the District's police department want the city's anachronistic bond posting system overhauled. Specifically, Mr. diGenova wants higher bonds and, in some cases, no bond at all for serious drug offenses.

A four-year-old case in Fairfax County shows that the need for some action is long overdue and that if the bonds are going to be raised, they will have to be raised much higher. There, county police and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration worked for over a year shadowing and gathering evidence against Dane J. Barnhard, a man suspected of being one of the area's biggest drug dealers.

Mr. Barnhard's access to money allegedly enabled him to fly a rented Lear jet back and forth between Florida and the Washington area. When Mr. Barnhard was arrested, his bond was set at $200,000. Within hours, an associate showed up with enough cash to make even that bond amount. Mr. Barnhard -- you guessed it -- was last seen boarding a plane for parts unknown three years ago. The county's most wanted suspect is still at-large.

The cost in wasted manpower and time when such events occur is relatively easy to see. What is not so easy to see is how demoralizing it could be for investigators who have painstakingly built a case for several months never to find out whether any of it would have held up in court. How zealously can we expect them to pursue their next investigation?

The bond schedule on which the two D.C. suspects were released has not been updated since 1976. For some offenses, there may need to be no updating. For drug offenses, the increasingly large sums of money involved indicate the need is there. Higher bonds in drug cases might have meant that the two D.C. suspects would be here to stand trial.