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Back to list of Dissenting Opinions of Judges

April 13, 2004 - The Boston Globe (MA)

Our Surrender In War On Drugs

By Mark S. Coven, First Justice of the Quincy District Court

REMEMBER THE WAR on drugs? It began long before Nancy Reagan urged that we "Just say no." The fight was always between the battle against supply or demand, whether funding should be directed to the demand side (treatment efforts) or toward reducing or limiting supply (law enforcement efforts). On either side of the debate, the government was committed to wage the war. Quietly, though, we have apparently raised the white flag and surrendered.

Pardon my frustration, but sitting in my courtroom is a 20-year-old man literally and figuratively crying for help. He is seriously addicted to cocaine and has admitted to drug use as late as last night. He has been addicted for most of his teenage years and has lost his home, his family, and his hope for a better life.

A dedicated probation office has already called 12 residential substance abuse programs, but there are no beds available. He has no health insurance, as he has been unable to maintain a job, and without insurance, our probation staff cannot even find him outpatient counseling or day treatment. His only crime has been drug possession. He has not been breaking into houses. He is only ruining his own life. But there are few options, if any, in finding him help.

The funding for substance abuse services in the Department of Public Health has been reduced from $44,598,000 in 2001 to $33,789,000 in 2004. This has meant dramatic reductions throughout the substance abuse treatment system. It has meant a loss of over 50 percent of the detoxification beds throughout the state, from approximately 900 beds to 420 publicly funded beds. It means the loss of long-term residential programs to nearly 300 drug addicts or alcoholics this year. It has resulted in loss of funding of 54 percent of state-funded counseling affecting 4,000 addicts.

Methadone treatment will be reduced by 25 percent. Funding will be eliminated for nearly 1,200 convicted drunken drivers. And for those people who are incarcerated but suffer from addiction, services that had been provided to men in the 13 houses of correction and for women at MCI-Framingham will be eliminated.

The governor's budget for this next fiscal year will go even further: It proposes an additional reduction in funding for treatment by nearly another $2 million. There is not only a direct consequence to this reduction in treatment; there is an indirect consequence that make these reductions even more severe. Because Massachusetts has reduced funding to such a great extent and has not maintained a basic level of effort, federal funding for programs in Massachusetts may be reduced by $4 million this year and nearly $7.5 million next year if the governor's proposals are embraced.

It is not as though the loss of funding for treatment has been shifted to the other side of the equation in the war on drugs -- that is, to increase law enforcement efforts to stop the supply of drugs from entering the state or to the prosecution of drug offenders. The reduction in funding to the state laboratory for testing of drugs seized after arrest has caused an increase in the backlog of drug samples waiting to be tested to more than 4,200, a nearly twofold increase in just one year. Whereas the state laboratory was previously analyzing illegal drugs and providing the results to prosecutors within 30 days, now the average length of time for testing has increased to 53 days or more.

The funding for drug testing through the Community Correction program within the Office of the Commissioner of Probation allows random urine screens for only 90 days. Where a convicted offender is placed on probation and ordered to stay clean and sober for two years, there is funding to randomly screen that person for only three months.

The result of our surrender in the war on drugs, in our concession to defeat, will be inevitable. In Greater Boston alone, 450 people died from drugs this past year, and many more will die in the future. More people will be sentenced to our houses of correction and state prisons at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000 per year because there are no options for treating them in the community or to adequately monitor their sobriety.

Families will be tortured by the horrors and abuses wrought by drug or alcohol addicted fathers, mothers, spouses, brothers, sisters, or children. And our neighborhood and downtown areas will again be afflicted by those suffering from their addictions.

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