Drugs, Addiction, and Legalization

In one of my past jobs, I was the chief counsel to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (during the Clinton Administration). It was therefore with great interest that I read this post and this one by Father Marshall at Episcopal Priest at the Bedside. In my view, Marshall is absolutely right--we need to treat addiction as a disease, and invest more of our resources into treatment. It is simply insane that we do not have adequate treatment resources in our criminal justice system when the overwhelming majority of probationers and prisoners are addicts-- to alcohol and other drugs.

This is not to say, however, that adoption of the addiction disease model means that we legalize drugs. I explained why in this op-ed that was published in the Arizona Republic several years ago

Just as our criminal justice system is beginning to build an effective treatment-oriented system for drug offenders, advocates are seeking to decriminalize these offenses. While well-meaning, such a “reform” would mean the loss of one of the most effective means we have to break the cycle of drugs, addiction and crime.

Drug possession offense should not result in a jail term, and drug addiction must be treated for what it is—a chronic, relapsing disorder. Nonetheless, the criminal justice system must still play a significant role by using its power—including the threat of jail time—to make treatment successful.

Drug use is not a “victimless crime”, and we have a strong community interest in fighting drug addiction.. Over half of crime is committed by individuals under the influence of drugs, and 80 percent of the men and women behind bars are addicted. People who live in households where drugs are used are 11 times as likely to be killed as those living in drug-free households. Drug abuse in a home increased a woman’s risk of being killed by a close relative by 28 times. The average individual with severe addiction commits nearly 63 crimes a year.

Using the power of the criminal courts to force drug offenders into treatment is effective means of reducing crime and other adverse effects of drug addiction. These programs break the cycle of drugs and crime, restore addicts as productive members of society, and save us hundreds of millions of dollars in saved prison and healthcare costs.

The idea is simple: use the power of criminal courts to induce nonviolent offenders into treatment, and keep them in treatment until they are successful in defeating their addiction. Sadly, for all too many, addiction is too strong for a purely voluntary treatment to work. To remedy this problem, criminal courts can use a “carrot and stick” approach—using drug testing, graduated sanctions and treatment—to induce offenders to take treatment seriously.
These forced treatment programs work. They are far more successful than voluntary programs both in inducing offenders to participate in treatment and in retaining offenders in treatment. For example, in Brooklyn, the Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison program was able to retain 64 percent in drug treatment—at least two times higher than the retention rate for most voluntary residential treatment programs. Moreover, after one year, offenders who were forced into treatment had less than half the arrest rate of drug offenders sent to prison. As a result of this success, New York will be using this closely monitored treatment approach for all non-violent offenders with drug problems.

Similarly, drug courts have also shown great success. There are now about 600 drug courts in operation, with drug courts located in every state, including Arizona. Using drug testing, strict monitoring, treatment and graduated sanctions, drug courts offer nonviolent offenders the hope of a dismissal of charges if they successfully complete drug treatment. During the program, graduated sanctions (which may include a few days of jail time) are used to punish offenders who test positive for drugs or who otherwise fail to participate the in treatment. This combination of positive and negative incentives work. Every study of drug court programs has found high retention rates, low rearrest rates and lower drug use. Participants in these programs had arrest and drug use rates far lower than similar offenders who did not participate in the program.

Drug court participants named close supervision and encouragement by judges, ongoing monitoring of their drug use, and intense treatment as the three factors critical to their success in beating drug addiction.

Unfortunately, this effective approach to defeating drug addiction would be lost if drugs were decriminalized. Decriminalization will unnecessarily and cruelly condemn millions of addicts who are not successful in voluntary programs to continued addiction, and the result will be more death, crime and human misery.

Instead of taking the self-destructive act of decriminalization, we should focus on what is really needed to improve drug policy—more treatment resources in our community so that quality treatment is available to all who need it, more treatment programs, including post-incarceration assistance, for the vast majority of prisoners in the Arizona corrections system who are addicted, and an increased focus of our criminal justice system on coerced and supervised treatment, not incarceration, of non-violent drug users.


Marshall Scott said…
Thanks very much for the reference to my blog and my articles. I'm glad you find the posts useful.

I do agree by and large about decriminalization, by and large. It is real and meaningful consequences that provide a foundation for intervention and treatment, whether forced by law or by family determination. I will admit that there are areas where I am ambivalent - the possible therapeutic value of THC even when received in smoke - but removing legal consequences will also lose important tools.
Chuck Blanchard said…

Thanks for visiting! I understand the ambivalence. i might also add that, while i am known to enjoy a good scotch now again, and love wine with my dinner, I think that alcohol abuse is the countries number #1 drug problem.
Anonymous said…
Drugs and Alcoholism are two of the most problems facing by the teenagers. In order for them to stay away from this two vices, parents must guide them. Without proper guidance and advise they might engaged into this situation that will result to addiction. Parents please guide your children.

Problem With Drugs or Alcohol? This Drug Rehab has Helped Thousands of Individuals to Recover. http://www.drugrehabcenter.com

Popular posts from this blog

Luke Timothy Johnson on Homosexuality and Scripture

Bultmann versus Wright on the Resurection

Washington Post Forum on Liberation Theology