The U.S. attorney for Utah believes decriminalizing cocaine would have the same effect as repealing Prohibition.

"Upon the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol consumption in this country tripled overnight. The same thing would happen with respect to drug abuse," Brent Ward said Friday."It would also send the message that Americans have given up; that society is putting a stamp of approval on illegal drug use. That would be the most harmful, disastrous possible message we could send to our young people today."

Earlier this week Ward announced 20 recommendations to eradicate drug abuse by the turn of the century. The recommendations were those of the Utah Strategic Planning Committee for Law Enforcement, a group pushing for stepped-up funding for drug and alcohol abuse enforcement and education.

Friday the attorney challenged mental health professionals not "to flinch" in their efforts to combat the problem.

"I believe I can finally see the end of the line. I don't want to be overly optimistic, but I think I see daylight and there is hope on the horizon," he said at a cocaine seminar at the Red Lion Inn.

Ward said there is statistical evidence of a decline in cocaine use among teenagers. There's also evidence that the American society is growing less tolerant of drug abuse.

"In 1978 President Carter was actually seeking the decriminalization of marijuana," he reflected. "Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed. Not only was marijuana not decriminalized, but occasional use of marijuana was enough to prevent Douglas Ginsburg from gaining a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court."

Ward said that's evidence of a growing intolerance of the public, which is essential to cure the drug epidemic.

"It reflects growing peer pressure, and that's worth all the billions of dollars this country will even spend fighting the drug abuse problem," he said.

Friday's seminar, sponsored by Parkside Recovery Center of Salt Lake, was designed to give medical specialists new information about and treatments for cocaine, the most addictive stimulant.

An estimated 10 million people use cocaine at least once a month; 25 percent of the cocaine abusers become addicted.

According to Ward, cocaine has come to symbolize "the worst in our culture - the unhealthy romance between many of the young people in this country and illegal drugs.

"It has come to symbolize America's inability to control the drug abuse problem despite tremendous expenditure."

Ward said that from 1981 to 1987, federal expenditures for drug law enforcement more than quadrupled. Although seizures increased, the amount of cocaine entering the country has continued to grow.

Cocaine trafficking has become the third largest industry in the United States.

"I call it an epidemic and a plague that has America under siege," Ward said. "It's a stark, gruesome reality that statistics cannot begin to describe."

This is not the time Americans should entertain thoughts of slackening their efforts.

"The test of a community's intolerance, indignation and disgust is a continuing test," he stressed. "The message must come through loud and clear to each generation in this country that we will not permit drug abuse in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, work places or anywhere else."

Quoting a noted criminologist, he said, "Drug abuse is wrong. Drug abuse is immoral. It is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul."

Ward warned the professionals that the battle against drug abuse is "a marathon - not a sprint."

"We cannot expect overnight results, but if we continue . . . our efforts, we can substantially reduce drug abuse by year 2000," he said.