Pino Arlacchi is an optimistic man. "Global coca leaf and opium poppy acreage totals an area less than half the size of Puerto Rico," says Arlacchi, executive director of the U.N. Drug Control Program. "There is no reason it cannot be eliminated in little more than a decade."

The fact that a tiny percentage of the Earth's surface is needed to satisfy the demand for cocaine and heroin might give pause to the timid. After all, even if existing crops could be completely destroyed, enterprising drug traffickers could always find other places to grow their raw materials.

Then, too, the track record of previous U.N. drug control intiatives is not encouraging. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs called for the elimination of illegal opium poppies by 1979, of marijuana and illicit coca by 1989. Instead, production of these drugs has expanded.

But Pino Arlacchi is undaunted. He was one of the main forces behind the recent U.N. drug summit, officially known as the 20th Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly Devoted to Countering the World Drug Problem Together. The slogan for the gathering--displayed, appropriately enough, above artwork by children--was "A Drug-Free World...We Can Do It."

According to a press release, the Special Session set "a bold objective: a drastic simultaneous reduction of both illicit supply and demand for drugs by the year 2008," including "the elimination or significant reduction of illicit narcotic crops." U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the aim is "to create momentum towards a drug-free world in the 21st century."

The immediate goal of the Special Session--promises to work together on matters such as crop eradication, control of precursor chemicals, prosecution of drug traffickers, and investigations of money laundering--was accomplished well before the meeting convened on June 8. That left three days for representatives of 153 countries to condemn drug use and call for international cooperation.

Each country was alotted seven minutes (President Clinton took 12, ignoring the red light flashing on the podium) during the "general debate," which was something of a misnomer given the lack of substantive disagreement. Arlacchi praised "the level of consensus," which he called "almost unique in U.N. history."

Some rain did fall on this parade of platitudes. On the opening day of the Special Session, a two-page ad in The New York Times highlighted an open letter to Annan from hundreds of prominent scholars, judges, politicians, activists, journalists, and former law enforcement officials. "We believe the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself," they said.

The letter described the disastrous consequences of prohibition--including violence, crime, corruption, the spread of disease, and the routine violation of individual rights--and suggested "a truly open and honest dialogue" about drug policy. "Too often," said the signatories, "those who call for open debate, rigorous analysis of current policies, and serious consideration of alternatives are accused of 'surrendering.' "

Right on cue, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala responded to the ad by saying, "There's no chance that we're going to throw up our hands and walk away." She described opposition to the war on drugs as "a kind of pseudo-intellectualism."

Apparently, Milton Friedman, one of the century's leading economists, is a pseudo-intellectual. So is Stephen Jay Gould, the renowned Harvard paleontologist; Steven Duke, the Yale law professor who once taught President Clinton; and Lani Guinier, the University of Pennsylvania legal scholar whom the president nominated for a top Justice Department post.

If the many respected academics who signed the open letter can be so easily dismissed, Shalala presumably could make short work of people like George Shultz, the former secretary of state; Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica; and Javier Perez de Cuellar, one of Annan's predecessors at the U.N. Then again, it's possible these men learned something by participating in the war on drugs that Shalala hasn't.

Wisdom in this area begins by recognizing that human beings have always been attracted to psychoactive substances and always will be. When the government tries to stand between people and the drugs they want, it may prevent a certain amount of self-inflicted misery, but it also imposes a great deal of misery on drug users and bystanders.

Critics of the war on drugs are asking whether this trade-off is morally acceptable. In "a drug-free world," that question would be irrelevant. In the real world, it is getting harder to ignore.