In the waning hours of its 1990 session, Congress took a much-needed step to strengthen the government's war on drugs. But the lawmakers didn't go nearly as far and fast as they should have.

We're referring to the approval of a bill authorizing the appointment of 85 new federal judges across the nation, including one in Utah. The new appointment will give Utah a total of five U.S. District Court judges plus one senior federal judge.Though 85 new judges may sound like a lot, even more are needed. Keep in mind that as of the first of this year, 57 federal judgeships were standing vacant. Keep in mind, too, that no new federal judgeships had been created since 1985 despite a sharp increase in the workload of those courts.

Much of that increasing workload consists of drug cases. In the past five years, the federal criminal caseload has increased 25 percent. At the same time, the portion of such cases related to drugs has risen from 17 percent of all federal criminal cases to 26 percent.

This trend seems bound to continue if only because almost 1,200 more federal prosecutors have been enlisted in the war against drugs.

But don't hold your breath waiting for those 85 new judges to take their seats on the federal bench and get down to work. Sadly, the Bush administration has been slow to pick nominees to the federal judiciary - and the U.S. Senate has been even slower to confirm or reject these nominations. At one point two years ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee was taking an average of 123 days to act on a presidential nomination to the federal courts - or three times longer than before.

No wonder that Washington insiders are saying it may take years before all 85 of the new federal judgeships are filled. But if Washington is really serious about waging an effective war on drugs, it will have to show a greater sense of urgency than that.