THE NO. 1 PERILS? ALCOHOL AND TOBACCO

NATIONAL PANEL IS SHOCKED BY ITS OWN CONCLUSIONS ABOUT KIDS AND DRUGS--AND BENNETT'S REACTION

Phoenix school principal Camerino Lopez figured he had the perfect forum in which to express his surprising views on the chief threats to America's youth.

As Arizona's only representative on the 26-member National Commission on Drug-Free Schools, Lopez was eager to get his new point of view out for public scrutiny. He wasn't alone in his thinking. A majority of the blue-ribbon panel--which included eight members of Congress and others from several walks of life--had reached the same conclusion after a yearlong debate.

Their finding? Alcohol and tobacco, not illegal drugs, are the most serious perils. That view put them directly at odds with drug czar William Bennett and President George Bush.

"I had never thought of alcohol and tobacco as being the No. 1 problems for our kids," says Lopez. "I was raised on booze and tobacco, and I indulge in both myself. I thought it was illegal drugs. But I was wrong."

Bennett and Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos had appointed the panel amid much fanfare in August 1989. Many had expected it to add ammunition to Bennett's well-publicized stance against illegal drugs as the poison infecting society. But it didn't.

And Bennett has tried to suppress the commission's findings and recommendations.

"Of course, we weren't saying there wasn't a drug problem," says Lopez, the principal for nine years at Garfield Elementary School on 13th Street south of McDowell. "I know there's a drug problem--I know that firsthand. Did anyone try to put political pressure on us not to conclude the way we did? The answer is yes. Booze and tobacco are major industries in this country. But Bennett told us, `If you come forward with this, it won't hold any water. You have to be realistic.' I don't know exactly what has happened here."

If any report has ever deserved to see the light of day, it's the one completed by the commission in September. It's rare among government-sanctioned documents--generally readable, timely, and with a mix of practical and pie in the sky. (Calling for "drug-free schools and colleges by the year 2000" fits into the pipe-dream category.)

"In general," the report concludes, "the use of such drugs as cocaine, marijuana and heroin has declined among high school and college youth, as well as in the general population, over the last decade . . . Fewer young people are using drugs than at any time since 1979. The use of alcohol and tobacco among youth, however, has seen very little decline."

Among its recommendations, the commission calls for states to collect fines from drug felons for education and treatment, not just for law-enforcement purposes. It also asks states to introduce multimedia campaigns against drinking and smoking by kids, including ordering equal-time provisions to counter ads targeting youth.

"The commission believes that the nation's drug problems will not be eliminated until the gateway drugs--alcohol and tobacco--are dealt with more effectively," the report says. "If messages about drug use are to be credible and consistent, society must address all drugs.

"To discuss only concerns about controlled drugs would send a message that alcohol and tobacco do not present significant problems, or that society is willing to overlook these problems."

This was dramatic information, especially from a commission put together largely by Bill Bennett. Bennett's blitzkrieg since his January 1989 appointment by President Bush had been aimed at convincing everyone that illegal drugs are America's No. 1 enemy. Alcohol and tobacco have not been villains of Bennett's drug war.

But the panel of teachers, politicians, research scientists, drug-treatment experts, law-enforcement pros, and an inner-city principal from Phoenix didn't buy Bennett's bluster. That was news in itself. Even with the Iraq crisis dominating the front pages, the commission members expected the media to find room for their controversial look at the real drug war.

What many of them didn't count on was, as Camerino Lopez says, "the ways of the White House. You have to fight differently on that level than you do down here. There are different kinds of agendas there, different kinds of hit men."

The National Commission on Drug- Free Schools remains the best-kept secret on the block. And its members are unhappy about that.

"We weren't just messing around reading reports and wasting time," says Lopez. "Many of us did real things in real places all over the country. Everywhere we went, alcohol and tobacco stood out--it's what the kids told us, what the police agencies told us. It totally contradicted what I had expected to hear, but we had to run with it."

Bennett couldn't spike the commission's findings. There had been too many respected and independent voices on the panel. But he did what he could.

For starters, the 98-page report remained under wraps for about two months after it was completed. (Bennett spokesperson David Tell of the Office of National Drug Control Policy blames that delay on "technical" problems.) Then, one week before the report finally was made public November 15, czar Bennett resigned. At his well-attended farewell press conference, he didn't even mention the commission.

"Everyone in the world was there," says commission member Manya Ungar, "but he didn't even bother to say, `By the way, folks, we've got this critical report coming out that hundreds of people have worked on.' Dr. Bennett did the nation a disservice by just pretending his own commission didn't exist."

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