In mid-July, two U.S. senators mounted a challenge to a controversial and central component of America's international drug control policy. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., argued the time has come to replace the annual drug certification process - by which Washington judges the anti-narcotics performance of other nations and sanctions those that fail to make the grade - with a new approach to improving international and domestic cooperation in drug control efforts.

Although the challenge failed on the Senate floor, it sparked a debate which revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, and set out the main building blocks of a more constructive and effective alternative policy.The certification requirement was enacted in 1986 to press the administration to demand tougher action against production and trafficking of illicit drugs. Countries whose efforts are judged inadequate face penalties, including a withdrawal of U.S. aid, U.S. opposition to aid by multilateral development banks and possible trade sanctions.

The certification process is deeply resented in Latin America and regularly disparaged as a unilateral, sometimes arbitrary and hypocritical exercise by the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs.

These reactions matter. They undermine the sense of common purpose that must be the foundation of international cooperation on any issue. And they are shared by a growing number of critics in the United States, who see the yearly certification ritual as bringing few results and reinforcing the dangerous illusion that our drug problems can be blamed on others.

In fact, there is mounting evidence that international control programs cannot deliver what drug warriors promise. The United States has spent $25 billion on interdiction and ''source country'' programs over the past 15 years, yet cocaine and heroin are as easily available as they were then and at cheaper prices. At the same time, the violence and corruption of the international drug trade are damaging families, communities, judicial systems and democratic institutions through the hemisphere.

The debate over Mexico made two things clear. First, the cost of drug related abuse, addiction and crime in the United States (some $67 billion in 1996) is high. Second, it made clear that, on the international side, the certification process is at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. It has not diminished the violence and corrupting influence of transnational drug cartels, and has often undermined international cooperation to counter these threats.

An amendment to the foreign aid bill, offered by Sens. Dodd and McCain called on the president to appoint a high-level task force, chaired by the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to develop a comprehensive strategy on drug consumption and trafficking. It asked the president to urge leaders of major drug producing and transit countries to establish similar task forces, and to convene within a year an international summit to review the recommendations and coordinate action. The legislation would suspend the drug certification process for two years.

The proposal, after a spirited debate, was defeated 60-38, with Democrats evenly divided (22-22) and Republicans mostly opposed (38-16). A majority of senators were critical of the certification process and many favored an increased focus on domestic programs - but in the end, the familiar ''get tough'' on drugs dynamic that has driven policy for decades prevailed in the voting.

But it broke important new ground. For the first time in years, the Senate had a debate on the certification policy itself, rather than on the narrower issue of whether to certify individual countries. The administration's drug czar and national security adviser endorsed the proposal, saying it holds greater promise for success than current policy.

The debate could prove to be the initial step toward a more constructive policy that's based on the notion that international programs to reduce supply will not ''solve'' drug problems in the United States.

Sens. Dodd and McCain proposed concrete mechanisms that could be tried for improving U.S. domestic drug control programs and enhancing joint efforts with other countries. Congress and the administration should work together on this approach.

One premise of the Dodd-McCain proposal was that international drug control policies must be multilateral. A body, such as the Organization of American States, could be used to press countries to meet standards set out in international agreements and hold accountable those who do not.

The Dodd-McCain proposal also established the essential principle that U.S. drug control policy must begin at home. International policies must be based on this principle.

In the end, the most important benefit that will come from eventually moving beyond ''certification'' will be to remove this yearly distraction - and allow us to face the real challenge of reducing the harm of drug abuse and addiction in our communities.

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