Forget the Extremes. Try a Dose of Both

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, May 6, 2001.

  1. By Adam Gelb
    Sunday, May 6, 2001; Page B03

    Since last November's elections, it has seemed like the forces arguing for a shift in American drug policy from punishment to treatment were gaining significant ground.

    The notoriously harsh three-strikes-and-you're-out voters of California agreed to a ballot initiative that steers first-time nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than jail. The tough-on-crime governor of New York called for shortening prison sentences for drug offenders, and his fellow Republican governor of New Mexico is pushing decriminalization of marijuana. Meanwhile, the sad odysseys of celebrity cocaine addicts Robert Downey Jr. and Darryl Strawberry are putting a sympathetic face on addiction, and the hit movie "Traffic" and the mistaken shoot-down of a missionary plane over Peru appear to be stirring a wave of public discontent with the nation's protracted war on drugs.

    Now come reports that President Bush will retreat from these developments and appoint veteran drug warrior John P. Walters to be the next drug czar. Walters is a sworn skeptic of drug treatment and a chief architect of U.S. drug interdiction strategy.

    So the great drug war debate lingers, stalemated between two sets of extremes -- punishment versus treatment, and supply versus demand. Now, as before, neither side has it right. Hundreds of thousands of criminal drug addicts cannot safely be spared prison and put into our nation's already overwhelmed community treatment and probation programs. Nor can we incarcerate or intercept our way out of the problem.

    Though the politics seem paralyzed, there is a budding consensus among drug policy experts and professionals in the field on a strategy that can both work and be sold to the public. The strategy would retire the worn-out treatment versus incarceration debate in favor of a political and policy middle ground -- not just a "balance" in emphasis on supply and demand, but a much more subtle and sophisticated blending of the two philosophies.

    What's required is a system that might be called "managed punishment." Rather than being locked up and warehoused, or cut loose and told to show up for treatment, drug-addicted offenders, whether convicted of a violent crime or mere possession, need finely tuned doses of treatment and punishment at the same time.

    Such a system would deliver the right mix ofthe two approaches to individual addicts on a massive scale. To make that possible, probation officers would need administrative authority to move offenders quickly up and down the various levels of custody -- from low-intensity probation to home detention to progressively increasing numbers of days in jail -- based on the results of frequent drug tests, attendance at counseling sessions and compliance with other terms of supervision. Drug treatment would have to be provided every step of the way.

    The key to the system would be a rational and certain set of penalties and rewards spelled out in advance. Each and every time an offender broke the rules, he would face a predictable, immediate and proportionate response. No judge shopping, no excuses for getting high, no six-month delays waiting for a violation hearing in court.

    This might seem like common sense, but it is a dramatic departure from current practice around the country. There are now nearly 5 million Americans on probation or parole, outnumbering prisoners by more than three-to-one. These offenders are out in our neighborhoods, not behind bars, and account for the bulk of drug-related violence and theft. In fact, drug-addicted offenders under supervision in the community have been estimated by leading drug policy expert Mark Kleiman to use an astounding 50 percent of all the cocaine consumed in the United States. Yet the focus has been on providing drug treatment to prison inmates, rather than to this far more immediate threat.

    As a result, the vast majority of drug-addicted offenders released to community supervision -- whether assigned to probation by a judge or let out of prison by a parole board -- don't get a treatment slot and don't get tested for drug use on a regular basis. Even when they do get treatment and testing, their probation officers don't have the ability to impose any consequences for skipped treatment or failed tests. Sometimes, an officer will get fed up with persistent violations and bring the offender to court, where the judgewill either slap him on the wrist and give him another chance or send him to prison to serve out his full sentence. It's an all-or-nothing proposition that runs counter to everything we have learned about how to help people change their behavior.

    A growing number of "drug treatment courts," including several juvenile and adult operations in the District, Maryland and Virginia, provide close judicial oversight of probationers in treatment and have proven that the concept can work. Some of the better ones, such as the adult court in the District, can cut re-arrest rates in half. But because most drug courts restrict eligibility to lower-level offenders, they achieve a dangerous paradox: The more hardened offenders go through the regular probation system, where they get less supervision, and less-intensive testing and treatment.

    More specialty courts and "alternatives to incarceration" programs are being planned at the local level, with some federal and state help. But they still will handle only a tiny fraction of the 5 million offenders now under state and federal legal supervision, and cannot absorb a crush of new clients that treatment advocates want to divert from prison. We will not dig out of the drug war debate or reduce drug-related crime to an acceptable level until we move beyond these small pilot programs and overhaul the basic way the nation's community supervision and drug treatment agencies do their jobs.

    We need many more treatment slots and probation officers, to be sure. But expanding capacity is not nearly enough. Managed punishment requires that drug treatment programsbe organized into true local systems that direct addicts into the right slots for their individual needs, move clients quickly between programs as their addictions improve or worsen, and plug in related services such as mental health treatment, job training and housing assistance. Insurance must be required to cover more than a meager 10 counseling sessions. The performance of individual programs must be tracked and statistically compared so the best can be rewarded and the worst weeded out.

    Probation departments, for their part, must take advantage of advanced technologies that provide fast and accurate drug tests, track offenders' locations wherever they go, and share data with treatment providers and police so they know instantaneously when someone misses treatment or gets arrested. And probation officers, like community police, must get out from behind their desks and build reliable sources of information in their community.

    Most critically, treatment and probation staffs must present a united front to offenders. Both professions must send the message that while relapse may be part of recovery, offenders cannot return to drug use without ramifications.

    Because we know that addicts commit far fewer crimes while engaged in treatment, targeting drug-addicted offenders with a system of managed punishment would make a bigger, faster dent in the drug and crime problem than any other single strategy. It would be cheaper than the increased incarceration and interdiction that's already planned. It would be aggressive without bursting prisons or infringing on civil liberties. It would be compassionate without allowing de facto amnesty for junkies who break into homes -- and whose first sensational crime would simply swing the incarceration versus treatment debate back the other way.The middle ground of managed punishment is where we have the best chance of helping addicts and protecting our communities from the ravages of illegal drugs.Adam Gelb, former policy director for Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is executive vice president and chief operating officer of PSComm, LLC, a public safety management and technology consulting firm based in Rockville.

    © 2001 The Washington Post Company
  2. It seems to me that (especially as far a pot is concerned) it would be easier to stop trying to force people to go against their will.

    It they want to smoke up, then it's not hurting anybody else. We should stop wasting our governments' money on trying to force people to stop smoking marijuana. It should be a matter of personal choice, just like cigarettes and booze.

    I like the approach in the article for other drugs, but I'm still not so sure they're going about it the right way. They're still forcing people to stop doing something that they want to do (that is not so necessarily harmful per se to society). It's hard to imagine coke not being harmful, but it ultimately is the person who makes the choice to do the things they do while on coke. We should blame THEM, and punish them for their crimes, not coke.

    If drugs get out of control, then there should be help available. I think people would be quicker to recognize if they were starting to get in too deep if they wouldn't be punished for asking for help.

    But hell, I ain't president. (Love that power of pardon!)

    It's a step in the right direction, but a small one.

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