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Miller Mark - 6 marzo 1990
Bennett's New Optimism
Mark Miller

(Newsweek of March 12, 1990)

The evidence is mixed

Taking office a year ago, drug czar William Bennett seemed deeply pessimistic about his prospects for success. "I will not say we will prevail," Bennett said. "It's essential that we win, but it's not inevitable". Pressed for specifics, Bennett estimated it might take "10, 15 or 20 years" to turn the tide against drugs, adding that he had no "illusions" that he would be able to solve the nation's durg problem during his tour of duty. Today the czar takes a remarkably different view. "The healing has started and will continue," Bennett said last week. "A year from now, it will be better yet. We are starting to win".

Whatever happened to the great drug "scourge" that George Bush, in his Inaugural Address, warned the nation about? Though Bennett carefully stopped short of actually declaring victory, a cynic might say his sudden change of heart reflects a predictable Washington need to see light at the end of the tunnel. To be sure, there are undeniable signs of progress in the nation's war on drugs. Congress and the Bush administration seem almost oddly in agreement on the enforcement-oriented strategy that Bennett proposed, and the president's drug-policy summit in Colombia last month apparently went well. Most important of all, various government surveys show that the number of cocaine users has been cut almost in half since 1985. So why isn't everyone smiling ? Why does an expert like Dr. Robert DuPont, former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), warn that Bennett may regret his newfound optimism ?

One answer can be found in last week's State Department report on worldwide drug production. According to that report, the output of opium, marijuana and coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine, has never been higher. Another answer, arguably even more disturbing, is contained in an upcoming report by a visiting fellow at the National Institute of Justice. This analysis suggests that recent government-sponsored surveys may have substantially underestimated the prevalence of cocaine abuse in the inner city. "Even as there has been a welcome and dramatic drop in middle-class and 'casual' drug use . . . there remains a stubborn hard core of lower-class drugs that is intense and perhaps still growing," the report's author, Eric Wish, concludes.

Last year NIDA estimated that 862.000 Americans use cocaine frequently, mainly in the form of crack. But Wish's study, based on urine testing among criminal suspects in 21 U.S. cities, found that at least 1.3 million additional Americans now may be current users of the drug.

Crack addiction : The bottom line, as Bennett himself argued in his drug-strategy overview last September, is that America is fighting two separate drug wars. One is the drive to deter recreational cocaine use by young people and middle-class thrill seekers, a goal that is clearly being achieved. The other is the much more difficult campaign to reduce crack use and crack addiction in the ghetto - and if researcher Wish is right, this second war is still being lost.

Dr. Thomas Kosten, acting director of Yale University's Substance Abuse Treatment Center, says he is "optimistic in the sense that we are not going to be totally overwhelmed by a tidal wave of cocaine abuse." At the same time, Kosten warns, the cocaine explosion of the 1980's may well leave the United States "with probably twice as many chronic, hard-core drug users" as it had before. The question now is whether the administration will fight as hard to save the inner city as it will to protect the middle class.

 
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