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March 22, 2005 - The Daily Trojan (CA Edu)

Prison Not Best Drug War Answer

By Celeste DeFreitas

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Addiction is an illness. Narcotics abuse is an illness. Logically, the purchasing, possession and abuse of a drug by an addict is as much of a health concern as it is a legal one.

Narcotics abuse is undoubtedly a more emotionally complicated crime than other nonviolent offenses such as theft and vandalism, but early attempts to curb abuse lacked the necessary breadth to get addicts clean. Incarceration is not an effective method of freeing drug users from the substances on which they depend.

You cannot always beat a beast into submission, and the national "war on drugs," as it is currently framed, attempts to do just that. It aims to prevent drug abuse and crimes through the enforcement of strict, blanketed penalties for citizens who violate.

Although national policies on drug prohibition state the goal is to promote public health, more funding, both on a national and local level, is allocated toward criminal investigations and prosecution of drug users than toward education and rehabilitation.

The fruitless brute-force methods established at a federal level are also standard at the local level. The Los Angeles Police Department made 26,131 arrests for violent and property-related crimes in 2003, according to a statistical report released by the chief of police.

The same year, the LAPD made 27,486 narcotics arrests. In short, police officers arrested 1,300 more citizens for narcotics violations than for murders, rapes, thefts, aggravated assaults and larcenies combined.

Despite the widespread arrests for narcotics-defined crimes in 2003, the effects the arrests had on usage was negligible. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of adult users and abusers remained at a flat line.

Crime statistics show that harsh sentencing for nonviolent drug possession convictions is ineffective in deterring repeat offenses, but further analysis reveals that incarceration for those first offenses could increase the probably of a second offense. Relapse rates are more than 70 percent from all forms of criminal justice interventions and corrections-oriented approaches alone, according to the U.N. Office on Drug and Crime.

California took a step in the right direction in November of 2000 when it passed Proposition 36 - the initiative that allows people with first- and second-time drug possession convictions to receive drug treatment instead of incarceration - but implementation and funding issues have prevented the proposition from being wholly successful.

Officials at the district attorney's office told the L.A. Weekly that they had expected the primary patients enrolling in the rehabilitation programs to be recreational users - not full-blown addicts. The money allocated to fund rehabilitation programs and medical treatment is insufficient for the more typical, heavily addicted individuals who frequently require longer, more expensive treatments in residential facilities instead of 12-step outpatient program.

Recent state and county cutbacks have been devastating to already strained programs made possible by Prop. 36. To further complicate matters, the sheer size of the county coupled with the lack of money makes proper regulation of the program near impossible to assess.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, effective drug treatment programs combine the necessary medical aid and social services required to get the addicted individual back on track. Prop. 36 has made headway in providing Californians in need with a chance at restored chemical freedom, but without additional well-funded social welfare programs such as job placement services, access to medical and mental health treatment facilities, and counseling services, the success of the legislation is extremely limited.

A more compassionate solution to the drug problem is not only more humane, it's more cost effective. Every dollar spent on drug and alcohol abuse treatment saves the public $7, according study findings released by the state in 1994.

To successfully combat drug abuse and drug-related crime in California, the state needs to ensure that allocating funding for rehabilitation programs is a priority.

In addition to the court-mandated programs created by Prop. 36, the city needs to make comprehensive voluntary rehabilitation programs accessible to drug addicts who want to change before they're picked up by the police. The earlier people are given a hand to make the change, the sooner they will.

It's easy to demonize drug addicts and dismiss jail sentences that still too frequently follow possession convictions, but blame doesn't create change.

An addict with hopeless prospects has a hard time finding motivation to get clean, but if the society around that addict is willing to offer guidance, support and the promise of brighter future for the willing, the incentive to get sober suddenly becomes tangible .

Compassion must become a fundamental element in the rehabilitation system, and compassion starts with understanding. Prop. 36 was a great start, but there's still a long road ahead.

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