Jesse Jackson, speaking at the funerals of Len Bias and Don Rogers, called for a "declaration of war" on drugs. He made clear that he wasn't talking merely about police crackdowns and drug education programs but a full-scale assault, backed by the armed might of the nation, on "the terrorists and death messengers" who profit from America's drug habit.
President Reagan must have been listening. He has sent troops and helicopters into the enemy's lair in Bolivia, a major source of cocaine, and he's looking hard at India and Southwest Asia, where more than half of the U.S.-consumed heroin originates.
I have no doubt that Reagan, whose wife has long led the fight against drug abuse, is serious. The question is whether this latest campaign has any hope of success.
I can only say: I hope so.
I am not unmindful of earlier assaults, ranging from the "Golden Triangle" of Southeast Asia to Turkey and France, or of the fact that they didn't work. Nothing seems to work: neither pressure on foreign governments, nor efforts to switch opium- and coca-growing peasants to other cash crops, nor attempts to educate our own citizens to the dangers of narcotic addiction. But the problem is so acute that I am tempted to embrace the president's newest act of desperation.
I have given up on education as a way out. Education seems to work primarily for those ex-addicts who have learned firsthand the devastation these dangerous drugs can wreak or for members of my generation who were never tempted in the first place.
We imagine that if only the youngsters were made aware of the peril, they would run like panicked deer at the mere sight of a pusher. Well, education doesn't work. The death of Len Bias amounted to a graduate course in antidrug education, and yet a scant week after his death from cocaine, Don Rogers, the Cleveland Browns defensive back, was dead of the same poison.
The unknown and unremarked "nobodies" who died of drugs during that same period, or who will die this week and next; the athletes who never stopped doing cocaine while mourning the deaths of Bias and Rogers; the millions of youngsters snorting coke in back alleys and college dorms are not ignorant of what the stuff can do. They are merely confident it won't do it to them.
Is that -- as my generation supposes -- ignorance? Is it a sense of their own invincibility? Is it, as we imagine, some kind of death-defying despair? I don't think so. I routinely see homeless winos begging nickels for their next bottle, but does that stop me from having a glass of wine at dinner? I lost a friend, a successful journalist, to the ravages of alcoholism. But does his memory lead me to empty my liquor cabinet?
No. I simply cannot imagine myself as an alcoholic. I have no doubt that I could get falling-down drunk tonight and, if someone kept me from driving or otherwise risking my life, have nothing worse than a hangover as a consequence. Alcoholism? Not me.
I suspect that is the way many members of the younger generation (and any number of entertainers, athletes and other professionals) view cocaine. The fact that they know people who can't handle drugs in no way deters them from their own indulgence. Dope addicts? Not them.
Education worked in the case of LSD. There were enough cases of deaths, disfigurements and mental collapse from that unpredictable drug that no one could really feel invulnerable. You hardly hear of LSD these days. I expect something similar will happen with PCP, which also induces its users into bizarre behavior.
But the people who do drugs believe cocaine is different, and it is that sense of its difference that is making it the scourge of our society.
And we don't know what to do about it. We could clear the streets of pushers, but the most likely result would be a new breed of middlemen to deliver the stuff. We could make wholesale arrests of pushers, but where would we put them when we have run out of prison space for housebreakers and muggers?
Reagan, not being one to wring his hands in frustration, has declared full-scale war on the drug traffic, including its points of origin.
Will it work? Probably not. Do I think he's wrong to try?
Has anyone got a better idea?