A 12-year-old boy was wearing a T-shirt printed with the war cry: "DARE to keep off drugs" when Los Angeles detectives nabbed him for helping sell PCP-laced cigarettes to motorists.

The T-shirt came from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, an ambitious prevention effort city police have mounted in local schools.

"The kid didn't seem tough at all. There was a degree of innocence," said Detective George Sumpter. "He knew not to take drugs himself. Period.

"He said, `If someone tries to force you to take drugs, just say "no" and walk away.' But selling drugs was part of drugs in his community. He was making money."

Cold, hard cash talks on the streets of Boston as well as it does in L.A.

Youngsters in one decayed stretch of the city's mostly black Roxbury section earn $100 to $200 a day as couriers for dealers. Others as young as 7 make $20 to $30 as lookouts _ who yell when they see police on patrol.

Most American cities have similar horror stories about the drug trade's pervasive impact on children as young as grade-school age.

They bring into question the effectiveness of anti-drug education programs that have kids chanting "Just Say No," or in Jesse Jackson's words, "Down with dope, up with hope."

In spite of education, in spite of celebrity drug deaths, the drug business continues to proliferate. On the streets and in the business community, drug lords wage a high-tech battle in an illicit business worth $140 billion a year.

America is fighting back with a pea shooter.

"In the past seven years, we've made a major investment in law enforcement, in supply reduction efforts. Everybody agrees that will not solve the problem. Every law enforcement person says that.

"Of the $2.9 billion the government is spending on this problem, less than $1 billion is going to demand reduction _ prevention, treatment and research," says Lee I. Dogoloff, executive director of the American Council for Drug Education.

"We're becoming tangled up by this octopus. We're all paying for it," says Dogoloff, previously the Carter administration's White House advisor on drugs.

"We're fighting the war in the wrong battlefields and with the wrong weapons. We need a total mobilization in this country."

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Council on Alcoholism show peer pressure to try alcohol and marijuana begins as early as the fourth grade.

The average age of first drug use is now 13. For first alcohol use, it is 12. One in three 12 to 17-year-olds has tried marijuana and one in six still uses it. The figures show one in five high school seniors has tried "crack," an inexpensive, highly addictive cocaine derivative selling for as little as $3 a vial.

Education Secretary William Bennett cited opinion polls showing 80 percent of teenagers say laws against drug use and distribution are not strict enough. He said it means "they are scared and want to be protected from drugs."

"Almost every school district in this country has drug education programs, and we are still awash in drugs," Bennett told a congressional committee two years ago. "We need to get tough, and we need to get tough as hell."

But the federal response has been slow and uncoordinated.

William Harvey, sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, says the administration didn't realize until recently that the drug problem is so pervasive.

"Like national defense, we need a federal presence in these things," said Harvey, who also heads a local drug abuse treatment program.

"We are in a worse predicament than we were seven or eight years ago because of the decision to cut back drastically in treatment and prevention programs that had been encouraged by the National Institute on Drug Abuse," Harvey said. "The budgets were slashed by almost two-thirds, leaving money only for research, nothing for treatment or prevention."

Twenty years ago, Dogoloff says, drug use was pretty much limited to "Vietnam vets, inner-city residents and the flower children _ all were discrete groups in our society.

"Today, it has become endemic to the whole society. It is not something that affects only someone else. It effects every one of us through increased absenteeism, reduced productivity. We pay a premium with every item we buy."

"Drug use is not a victimless crime," Dogoloff said. "Tell that to the relatives of the 16 people who died in the Amtrak crash last year."

(Sixteen were killed and 176 injured when Amtrak's 12-car Washington-Boston Colonial rammed three Conrail locomotives at 105 mph near Baltimore. Engineer Ricky Gates tested positive for marijuana use after the crash. He pleaded guilty to one state count of manslaughter by locomotive and was sentenced to five years in prison.)

Frustrations over this pervasive problem _ not only the drugs, but the ancillary crimes it encourages like prostitution and break-ins _ have led some to call for the outright legalization of drug use. They argue it would eliminate the profit motive in the drug trade, as well as the other crime and corruption it breeds.

Such legalization suggestions from the mayors of Baltimore; Charleston, W.Va.; Minneapolis and Taylor, Mich., and a few newspaper columnists seem not so much a surrender as a belief that the problem has grown to intolerable proportions. Others, like Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry have called for a national debate.

"There is a sense developing that we just cannot go on like this," says Dr. David Musto, a Yale University psychiatrist who is a historian of drug abuse.

"This system is crazy," says Providence, R.I., Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., who last spring berated Attorney General Edwin Meese over the federal government's uncoordinated drug policies.

"We're losing this war on drugs faster than we lost the Vietnam War," Paolino said. "We can't surrender, because we haven't even begun to fight yet. All we've done is talk about it. I'd hate to surrender even before I picked up a weapon."

What's a nation to do?

How does it combat this epidemic? How does it stop drug abuse among youngsters that experts say is 10 times worse than parents suspect? How does it keep kids from trying drugs in the first place? How does it halt the demand that keeps the drug barons in business?

Many simplistic solutions have been raised, but none addresses all of the questions. Experts say each aspect requires a different response.

"We've been trying to cover an elephant with a bikini. You can move it around and eventually cover the whole elephant, but you'll never make it go away.

"The efforts are piecemeal, uncoordinated and are not taking into account enough factors simultaneously," says Judith L. Fischer, professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech University and expert on adolescent drug use.

"Slogans sound great, and people respond to them, and feel they are doing something, but simple answers won't work with complex questions," Fischer said. "The main reason drug education programs don't work is they begin too late. We have to start very early, and make sure that all kids as they're growing up have circumstances that allow them to feel really good about themselves.

"It must be not just addressed to staying away from drugs, but a whole range of issues. The kinds of conditions that provide low esteem are drug and alcohol abuse in the parents' home, stress in the home, violence in the home. They all put children at risk.

"The children in the ghetto may be more vulnerable to some of the tremendous stresses that the parents feel. They filter down to the kids and affect them, and put them more at risk, but the same kinds of things happen in the suburbs too," Fischer said.

She says peer pressure is a major factor in drug experimentation, and can be turned around to avoid it.

"When they are with their friends, they want to feel grown up, they want to belong to their group. If they don't have other sources of self-esteem or to feel good, drugs will make them feel good. They will use it to build self-esteem. The thing about drugs is that they work in the way they are intended. They mask pain. Unfortunately, they also create more pain."

A General Accounting Office report this year said the federal government must do much more to properly implement drug abuse prevention programs.

It found the highly publicized "Just Say No" program championed by first lady Nancy Reagan, modeled after anti-smoking strategies, will have only short-term results and may not reach all segments of the population.

"This report shows that we need more than rhetoric," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Narcotics Committee.

Rangel also has been critical of Education Secretary William Bennett's "zero tolerance" approach to drug problems in schools that simply expels drug violators.

"Throwing people out of school that you catch doesn't solve the problem," Rangel said. "We have to get at the potential drug-using students' values and change them in the classroom before the damage is done."

Next: A look at some solutions