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John Belushi loved speedballs. He may have died from this old-fashioned mix of heroin and cocaine.

In polite society right up to the 1920s, one could, with perfect legitimacy, get a kind of speedball right out of the peddler's basket.

For just $1, anyone could pluck from the horse-drawn Watkins Company wagon an 11-ounce bottle of "Anodyne Cough Medicine" laced with alcohol, chloroform and heroin.

The beguiling cover of the 1917 company almanac shows a confident "Watkins Man" attired in suit and boater, lugging two huge sample cases. He is strolling up a lilac path toward two ladies of fashion poised in wicker chairs and straining for a slug of something to set them free.

No record exists of what happened when these women or other customers gulped down this heady fix. But there must have been a lot of them because Watkins operated five huge factories across the continent.

The almanac makes a simple point: It isn't always the conduct that matters, but the cultural setting in which the conduct takes place.

In 1917, it was white ladies of property, and heroin was OK. (The ingredient, heroin, is printed at the top of the label.) Now it is primarily poor people of color, and drugs are patently not OK.

Consider the case of George W. Bush. If the Texas governor did sample, use or deal in cocaine, heroin, crack or some other illegal substance long before his father became president, it would have been OK because it might have happened while he was in prep school, or at Yale and in Skull and Bones.

It was also OK for a recently deceased white congressional aide who used and sold hard drugs because he did it while studying at an Ivy League law school.

This is cold comfort to the young adults -- primarily men of color -- who are penned up behind razor wire near Mount Morris and hundreds of other prisons for drugs and drug-related crimes.

As much as they are perpetrators, they are also victims of an industry. At this point, I am not talking about the drug industry. No, I refer to the mammoth matrix of local, state and federal agencies and courts that feed off the criminalization of drugs.

This year, we gave the Customs Service $300 million for drug interdiction. We gave the Defense Department $776 million for drug interdiction. And we gave the Coast Guard $369 million for drug interdiction.

These services at the risk of life and limb blocked a minority of the drugs intended for American streets from their destinations.

The Drug Enforcement Administration will spend $1.4 billion this year to field battalions of brave, selfless men and women dedicated to catching and jailing big drug dealers.

Yes, these billions have stopped some of the flow and punished some of the peddlers.

But there is a harmful side-effect of these courageous and well-meant efforts.

They have also resulted in driving up the prices for drugs, helping to make it a trade lucrative enough to die for.

Fantastic profits have inspired thousands of young unemployed people to vie -- with a heavy toll of life -- for control of the neighborhood drug monopolies that police agencies are supposed to destroy.

Struggles by desperate entrepreneurs for mastery over these high-priced commodities have ravished the commercial districts of most American cities, including Buffalo, where drug dealers riddled the city's Cold Spring Police Station with machine-gun fire in 1992.

The drug epidemic, turbocharged by the political hard line on drugs, historically driven by Republicans, has resulted in fat times for the prison business. In 1980, 7 percent of the national prison population of 320,000 was there for drug-related crimes.

By 1998, 81 percent of the prison population of 1.7 million was inside because of crimes connected with substance abuse. The Reagan administration, by the way, declared "total war" on drugs in 1988 and predicted the country would be drug-free in seven years.

Is it?

A new federal report estimated that 9 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 use illegal drugs. More than two-thirds are working full time. This level remained the same from 1994 through 1997, the last year for which the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention had data.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., is a rare voice in the wilderness calling on America to take a new look at the criminalization path. Moynihan isn't calling for legalization but for expanded national efforts on treatment and funds to investigate the way these drugs work on the brain, to study the causes of addiction itself.

There are no accurate figures on how much governments spend on crackdowns and how much on treatment. The kindest estimates indicate spending is two-to-one on enforcement.

This ought to be reversed, as Moynihan said in a speech at Harvard last year, to cut down on the street demand for drugs.

"While the science of drug abuse and addiction holds great promise," Moynihan said then, "the politics of drug control remains fraught with great peril."

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