HIS YOUNG AUDIENCE KNEW Bill Clinton was talking about marijuana, but imagine for a moment that the soon-to-be president was referring instead to cigarettes in the 1992 forum he conducted with young people on MTV. Asked whether he would "inhale" given the chance to do it "over again," Clinton replied, grinning, "Sure, if I could. I tried before."

Of course, the president would never joke about tobacco in this way; he recognizes the importance of exercising moral leadership on the issue of cigarette use by kids. But when faced with criticism for the alarming increase in drug use among young people, the Clinton administration and its defenders claim the drug problem is beyond even the president's reach -- that it is a function of the Zeitgeist and resists political solutions.

Speaking on CNN shortly before his speech at the Democratic convention, the president argued that the rising numbers of young drug users weren't his fault because "the patterns, interestingly enough, are the same in Canada and several European countries." UCLA professor Mark Kleiman agreed: "These are complex societal trends." Yale professor David Musto has said as well that " we are dealing with a larger shift in values and attitudes."

Yet contrast Clinton's easy acquiescence in the cultural currents affecting drug use with his zealous attack on tobacco use. "This epidemic is no accident," he said at a Rose Garden ceremony where he announced that tobacco would henceforth be regulated by the FDA. "Children are bombarded daily by massive marketing campaigns that play on their vulnerabilities, their insecurities, their longings to be something in the world." Tobacco use is, in other words, one societal trend the government is willing to try to control. But while the president has promised to move "Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man . . . out of our children's reach forever," he has been quick to avoid responsibility for, or even discussion of drug use.

It's easy to see why. Since he was elected, the use of illicit drugs by children as young as 12 has more than doubled. A recent Health and Human Services survey shows that teen use of marijuana and cocaine is up by 141 percent and 166 percent respectively since 1992. LSD use among high-school seniors has reached a twenty-year high, and 34.7 percent of seniors now smoke marijuana at least occasionally. After steadily and dramatically declining from the late 1970s until 1992, in less than four years illegal drug use threatens to become part of the lives of a majority of our teenagers by the time they reach age 18.

Is it reasonable to accept, as Clinton would have us believe, that the president of the United States lacks the power to alleviate, or turn back, a seismic change in attitudes among young people, or an increase in addiction among adults? Three decades of painful experience with illegal drugs show that it is not.

First, perhaps the most important lesson of our history with drug use is the fact that those who do not get involved with illegal drugs before age 20 almost never do after that. And the earlier and more heavily teenagers become involved with illegal drugs, the likelier it is that they will go on to become addicts.

Children learn by example, and the example set by the Clinton administration has been one of indifference and even casual tolerance of drug use. The president has let his most remembered statement on this topic remain "I didn't inhale." At a time when many businesses in this country have made great strides to create drug-free work places, the Clinton White House hired individuals whose drug use was so extensive and so recent that the Secret Service recommended denying them access to the most world's most prestigious office building. Jay Leno joked that the Smashing Pumpkins has a tougher drug policy than the Clinton White House.

Some will argue that kids don't listen to what the president says. Fair enough. The most critical program for preventing drug use is the one run by parents. But parents -- especially baby-boomer parents -- have been falling down on the job. More than onethird of children say their parents have never even had a talk with them about drugs. This despite the fact that 46 percent of parents fully expect their teenage children to try drugs. Among boomer parents who experimented heavily with marijuana as young people, the figure rises to 65 percent. Is it too much to expect President Clinton to try to shape attitudes among his peers, when his election in 1992 was widely hailed as a harbinger of that generation's accession to control of American institutions?

More broadly, the president has failed to offer even token support to the efforts of religious leaders, communities, law enforcement, medical personnel, and local officials. These efforts are unquestionably aided by political leadership, as New York Democratic representative Charles Rangel acknowledged when he said Clinton's lack of leadership makes him nostalgic for Nancy Reagan.

Of course, Clinton's unwillingness to target drug use among young people is not the sum total of the drug problem. There are addicts. HHS estimates their number at 7 million, most of whom started out as young drug users in the 1970s and 1980s.

Hard-core drug use is defined by doctors as a chronic condition, meaning that the only hope for most addicts is detox followed by repeated stays in a treatment facility. The best way to reach addicts is to drive up the price of drugs. Because addicts can only beg, borrow, and steal so much, making drugs expensive and reducing their potency forces addicts to spend their limited disposable income on a smaller quantity of lower-quality drugs -- a major incentive to enter treatment.

Having cheap drugs -- lots of drugs -- tends to lead to increased numbers of addicts in hospital emergency rooms. Make drugs expensive and lives are saved. In 1989 and 1990, the Bush administration's concerted effort to interdict the flow of drugs into the United States contributed to a 43 percent increase in the price of street cocaine -- which was accompanied by a 27 percent reduction in cocaine-related emergency-room admissions and overdoses.

These numbers have been roughly reversed under Bill Clinton, despite a drug strategy that is supposedly targeted at hard-core addicts. The Clinton strategy deliberately deemphasized measures like interdiction that make drugs scarce and expensive. As a result, prices have fallen, use is up, and addicts are getting sicker.

Are there other non-policy causes behind this increase in drug use? Of course. No social phenomenon can be reduced to a single cause, and there is even some evidence that drug use among a small subset of young people was already increasing at the time Clinton was elected. But the U.S. government has successfully managed two major drug epidemics in this century. Bill Clinton is not a hostage, lashed to the mast of a sinking ship. He is the president, and there are things he can do to reduce the drug problem. Instead, he has done things that have helped make it worse.

John P. Walters is co-author, with William J. Bennett and John J. DiIulio, Jr. of Body Count (Simon & Schuster). He served in the drug czar's office during the Bush administration.

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