America's Crusade

What is behind the latest war on drugs

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In Harlem, angry residents paint large red X's on crack dealers' doors and put stuffed animals in the windows of abandoned buildings as a symbolic gesture to reclaim them from drug users. In New Mexico, two children turn in their parents to the police for marijuana possession, just as a California girl did her coke-using parents a week earlier. In Washington, the President of the U.S., the Vice President and most of the White House staff patriotically provide urine samples so that it can be seen if they have within the past few days consumed any heroin, cocaine, marijuana, PCP or hallucinogens.

Like a drunk waking up from a 20-year binge with a massive hangover, the nation is bitter, remorseful and full of resolution. The easy tolerance of the late 1960s, when turning on was a statement of personal freedom, has turned to dread. Cocaine, the glamour dust of the late '70s -- fast, clean, fun! -- has been boiled down to hard and mean little pellets of crack, giver of euphoria, taker of lives. To a nation that espouses self-reliance, drug dependence has emerged as the dark side of the American character, the price of freedom to fail. It is as if America, so vain and self-consciously fit, has looked upon itself and suddenly seen the hideously consumptive portrait of Dorian Gray.

The country, it seems, is awash with drugs. Fine white powder pours past the border patrol like sand through a sieve. On busy street corners and in urban parks, pushers murmur, "Crack it up, crack it up," like some kind of evil incantation, bewitching susceptible kids and threatening society's sense of order and security. The public is outraged; opinion polls show that drug abuse has surpassed economic woes and the threat of real war as the nation's No. 1 concern. For a nation whose penchant for righteous crusades can surpass even its tolerance for libertine individualism, the crackdown against crack has become the latest celebrated cause.

"The War on Drugs" is now a regular feature on the nightly news and the front pages. CRACK USERS' BABIES CROWDING HOSPITAL NURSERIES, blares a headline in the normally staid New York Times. The networks air two prime-time specials in a week: CBS Anchorman Dan Rather can be seen tagging along on the police bust of a crack house in New York City; NBC's Tom Brokaw earnestly questions addicts about the evils of dope. The war on drugs, like the war in Viet Nam, has been brought home to the nation's living rooms.

This coming Sunday evening the President and his wife will deliver a joint television address from the family quarters of the White House on the subject of drug abuse. "They wanted to do it together, from their home to our homes, as parents and friends, as well as the First Couple," said Spokesman Larry Speakes. By his noted powers of moral suasion, Reagan hopes to do nothing less than make drugs socially unacceptable in the U.S.

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