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July 30, 2009 -- Oakland Tribune (CA)

California's Prop. 36 Drug Treatment Cut 83 Percent

By Josh Richman, Oakland Tribune

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

If California won't spend the money to treat certain drug offenders and state law forbids jailing them, they're likely to end up right back on the streets, say critics of the state budget agreement.

The Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have agreed to cut Proposition 36 funding from $108 million last year to just $18 million this year, but the underlying sentencing law remains.

"The courts are still obligated to push the people into treatment, knowing that the funds, the programs, the services aren't there," said Haven Fearn, director of the Contra Costa County Health Services Department's Alcohol and Other Drug Services Division. "That's the craziness that everyone is having to deal with. "... What's the answer to that?"

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance -- which essentially was Proposition 36's proponent -- said the answer will be "very long waiting lists," and drug users walking free while they wait.

"It's sort of silly, it's awfully close to having just eliminated the program. You get down to such a core level that it's of very little use to most people," said Gary Spicer, management services director at the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services Agency, adding that he anticipates a "push-down effect" in which offenders will have priority claims to a dwindling supply of treatment spots.

"What you wind up with is a treatment delivery system that's monopolized by judicial referrals and no longer available at the community level," he said. "It's a harm that keeps on hurting."

Proposition 36, approved by 61 percent of voters in November 2000, enacted the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act effective July 1, 2001. It requires that first-or second-time nonviolent adult drug offenders who use, possess or transport illegal drugs be sent to treatment rather than jail; eligible offenders can get as much as a year of drug treatment and six months of aftercare. Offenders found not amenable to treatment can be punished with jail time.

A UCLA study found every dollar spent on Proposition 36 treatment would eventually save the state $2.50 to $4, and suggested it would take about $230 million per year to adequately serve all those who need treatment.

Proposition 36 required the state to set aside $60 million in startup funds for 2000-01 and $120 million for each year after that through 2005-06. The state boosted that to $145 million in 2006-07 but then cut it back to $120 million in 2007-08 and $108 million in 2008-09.

But under the budget fixes Schwarzenegger signed into law Tuesday, Proposition 36 funding drops to just $18 million, an 83 percent cut. Even if the state manages to transfer into the program as much as $45 million in federal stimulus money -- a figure advocates believe to be pie-in-the-sky -- that still would amount to a 42 percent reduction from last year's level.

Counties will struggle to find money elsewhere -- perhaps from also-slashed Medi-Cal funds, for example -- but "there's no getting around the fact that treatment funding has been devastated in this budget," Dooley-Sammuli said. "It's heartbreaking because this is the state turning its back on a program that has been very heavily researched and found to be effective."

"There was no easy cut this year, and it's hard for me to say I'd rather eliminate welfare for children rather than drug treatment," she added, but even the hope of some small slice of federal economic stimulus money "doesn't make up for the fact that this program is gutted."

Fearn said he's asking the treatment providers with which his county contracts to "do the ethical thing" and not kick out those users already in treatment whose Proposition 36 money is about to dry up. In more than 30 years in drug and alcohol treatment, he said, he's never seen a loss like this.

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