In the nation's war against drugs, the good guys are winning some battles but the bandits are winning the war, a panel of experts agrees.

But whether decriminalizing marijuana, cocaine and heroin or even supplying the intoxicants free can reduce the violence in American cities is fodder only for debate at this point, according to panelists Wednesday night at the University of Utah Law School's Fifth Annual Jefferson Fordham Forum.An estimated $8 billion was spent last year by the federal government on the battle against drug trafficking and use. Those include high-visibility arrests in which luxury jets and boats were seized because occupants possessed small quantities of drugs.

The battle is "our domestic Vietnam, sucking up more and more resources all the time," Matthew Coles, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, told panelists Wednesday night.

The focus on big-time suppliers and users is a "misdirected effort" said Coles. "Criminal law enforcement never worked at getting people off drugs and keeping people off drugs."

But Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Chabries said decriminalization is "a social disaster" that "possesses no significant benefit" to society.

Allowing officers to ignore drugs and drug trafficking "amounts to an admission of defeat and creates social catastrophe," Chabries said.

"Don't write off our efforts as a total failure yet," the chief said. "I'm telling you there's a glimmer out there, a glimmer of hope."

The argument goes that the profit of the $20-billion-a-year drug trade is taken away when the government officially gets in on the street market. The violent crime associated with those who steal, rob and kill to buy drugs also would be reduced if the goods are given away free.

"It does seem to me we ought to consider a radical solution," said Jesse Chopper, University of California at Berkeley law dean. "I think we seriously ought to consider offering drugs legally" and treat the substances like alcohol.

Money spent on enforcement could be given to education, Chopper said.

Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam said, " `Just say no' is nice. `Just say no' is not going to work across the board."

Danny Quintana, an attorney representing Utah State Prison inmates in lawsuits, told panelists that some education efforts will be wasted on certain portions of the population.

"They just don't even perceive the world even close to the way you perceive it," Quintana said during the open forum session after the discussion. "You're trying to adopt white middle-class values for a group that's not white, not middle class."