Rethinking Drug Policy

By Harrison, Blake | State Legislatures, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Drug Policy


Harrison, Blake, State Legislatures


In the war on drugs, a policy shift from punishment to treatment is taking place in many states.

With states spending $20 billion to fight illegal drugs this year, legislators and citizen groups are looking at what's effective and what's not in the war on drugs.

The largest policy change will begin when california's Proposition 36 goes into effect this month. The measure, passed by 61 percent of the electorate, imposes treatment rather than imprisonment for firs--and many second--time drug possession offenses.

The conviction is then automatically removed from the person's record after he or she completes treatment, It is expected that as many as 36,000 offenders will be diverted from prison annually. The legislative analyst's office estimates that the program could save the state between $200 million and $250 million annually. California counties, however, must quickly expand drug treatment programs. "We have to create some new machinery here," says Dan Carson of the legislative analyst's office. "We had been on the track of building a prison a year, now it's treatment capacity that must grow."

Arizona established a similar program four years ago because of a citizen initiative. People convicted of drug possession have their sentences suspended, are placed on probation and assigned to a drug treatment or education program. Those who violate probation may be ordered by the court to participate in intensified drug treatment, community service, intensive probation, home arrest or any other sanction short of incarceration. An analysis by the Administrative Office of the Courts showed the program was getting people off drugs and saving the state money. In FY 1998, the state saved $5 million in prison costs while spending $2.1 million on substance abuse treatment. Moreover, the report said that the drug treatment and education funds were adequate to meet the increased demand for services under the diversion program, and the majority of offenders were completing treatment and passing drug tests.

Three wealthy philanthropists, George Soros, Peter Lewis and John Sperling, largely funded these initiatives. Their efforts will continue in 2002 when citizens in Ohio, Michigan and Florida likely will vote on statewide ballot proposals similar to the Arizona and California programs. The success of these initiatives has also encouraged legislators to consider such policies.

Other states are considering these programs as well. The Nevada Legislature will begin a pilot program in which 150 prisoners will be released six months early on the condition that they participate in a court-supervised treatment program for at least a year. …

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