Archive for Sunday, May 2, 1999


May 2, 1999


— Decades after America declared "war on drugs," there are encouraging signs that we may be getting smart about how it can be won.

For years, the focus was on blocking shipments of heroin and cocaine into the country. The effort continues, but so does the drug traffic.

When frustration with that approach bubbled over, the next move was to crack down on the users. "Lock 'em up and throw away the key" became the new mantra. States went on a prison-building spree and discovered how expensive that would be. And too many of the prisoners, when released, went right back to stealing to sustain their habit.

During all this time, a small chorus kept saying, "When you catch them, get them treatment and keep testing them to be sure they stay clean." Now, more states are trying it -- and finding that it works.

The most dramatic shift in policy occurred in Arizona -- and it came as the result of a voter initiative, not something the elected officials decided. In fact, many of the provisions of that 1996 initiative -- financed by a handful of millionaires -- remain bitterly controversial. It decriminalized marijuana and a wide variety of hard drugs, a step retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the federal "drug czar," vehemently opposed -- and still does.

But another part of Prop. 200 required that people convicted of drug possession for the first or second time be placed on probation and in treatment, rather than going to jail. A report on the first year of the program, issued late last month by the Arizona Supreme Court, offered real encouragement.

Of the 2,622 offenders diverted from prison, more than three-quarters (77 percent) tested drug-free at the end of their treatment programs. The same percentage made at least one payment toward the cost of their treatment, as the new procedure specifies.

The program appears to be substantially cheaper than putting people in prison. The court estimates that treating and testing these people was $2.5 million less costly than jailing them would have been.

John McDonald, the spokesman for the Supreme Court, noted that it will be at least another year before the recidivism rate can be established to gauge how many of these people stay clean. But he said political support for the program -- financed chiefly by a luxury tax on liquor -- has grown.

It long has been known that drug abuse is the major factor in swelling our prison and jail population almost to 2 million. But few of them get treatment. The astonishing figure cited by Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the coordinator of her state's anti-crime program, is that half of the country's entire consumption of heroin and cocaine is by people who are on probation or parole. If that is even remotely accurate, targeting this population for treatment could significantly reduce the demand that keeps the international drug traffickers in business.

Maryland has begun a program aimed at getting all 25,000 of the state's parolees and probationers into a rigorous testing regimen. The first results on the people who began the twice-a-week tests last autumn "are so good we're leery about them," said Adam Gelb, Townsend's policy director. After three months, the percentage testing positive dropped from 40 percent to just 7.4 percent -- a drop of more than four-fifths.

Before this "Break the Cycle" program began, Gelb said, a probation officer could order only about 7 drug tests a month for a typical caseload of 100 probationers. If someone failed, it was up to a judge to set the punishment -- and often, overworked judges just voiced a warning to "clean up your act."

In the new system, the courts have pre-authorized an escalating set of penalties for each failed test, climaxing in a return to jail. With the certainty of punishment for failure and the potential of shortened probation for staying clean, the incentives to seek treatment are vastly greater.

Like her Arizona counterparts, Townsend does not want to claim more than a promising start for the program. "It could provide a way out of the paralyzing and stupid debate between treatment and incarceration," she said. "A combination of sanctions and treatment works best."

McCaffrey agrees. In congressional testimony last week, he said it was time to abandon the phrase "war on drugs," because "addicted Americans are not the enemy. They require treatment. Wars are waged with weapons and soldiers. Prevention and treatment are the primary tools in our fight against drugs."

And they offer hope of success.

-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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