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PRESIDENT'S PAGE COLUMN FOR April, 2001, King County BAR BULLETIN

Talking Dollars and Sense About Drugs

According to the 2001 Annual Report of the federal Office of National Drug Policy, “The metaphor of a “war on drugs” is misleading....Cancer is a more appropriate metaphor for the nation’s drug problem. Dealing with cancer is a long-term proposition. It requires the mobilization of support mechanisms—medical, educational, social, and financial—to check the spread of the disease and improve the patient’s prognosis. Symptoms of the illness must be

managed while the root cause is attacked. The key to reducing the incidence of drug abuse and cancer is prevention coupled with treatment and accompanied by research.”

Last month I applauded Norm Maleng in this column for his support of legislation to reduce prison sentences for drug possession and dedicate the savings to treatment. His White Paper to the legislature (www..kcba.org/drug_law/ beyond_war.htm), cites an Oregon study showing that every dollar spent on drug addiction treatment saved the state $5.60 in costs for prisons, welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. At our recent Bench Bar Conference, Ken Stark, the director of Washington’s Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, estimated that it would take $160 million to provide treatment for all those addicted to alcohol and other drugs in Washington.

Based on the Oregon study, Washington’s taxpayers would save nearly $900 million per year by providing treatment to everyone who needs it. With our present treatment base, we could only absorb about $40 million as we “ramp up” to build a comprehensive treatment program, for a first year savings to the taxpayers of “only” $224 million.

Would any of us fail to repair a hole in our roof if we knew we could save $5,600 by spending $1,000? Would any business continue to employ a manager who cost the business 5.6 million dollars because s/he failed to spend a million dollars to repair the factory roof? Would we hesitate to spend $1,000 for antibiotics that could prevent a $5,600 surgery for a loved one?

By the same reasoning, why—knowing that by spending $40 million to provide drug addiction treatment the taxpayers of Washington would save $224 million—don’t we do it? Is it because we think that anyone who is addicted to alcohol or other drugs is morally flawed and ought to suffer, notwithstanding the fact that the rest of us have to pick up the tab? Is it because we fear being labeled “soft on crime”? I suggest it is because we have failed to educate ourselves on this issue, notwithstanding the disastrous consequences of our ignorance.

Let Governor Locke and your legislators know you don’t want sick people sent to prison at your expense, whether the sickness is mental illness, alcoholism, or drug addiction.

Use of criminal law to coerce

When I began studying “the drug issue,” I was inclined to think that alcoholism and drug addiction are illnesses that should be the exclusive domain of public health authorities, reserving criminal sanctions for acts of individuals which hurt other individuals (e.g., assault, robbery, rape) or society as a whole (e.g., tax evasion). Now, this “jury of one” isn’t sure what the verdict should be on the complex and troubling issue of using the criminal law to coerce treatment for an illness. However, I have no trouble at all condemning the imprisonment of thousands of people in the name of “deterrence” when it is proven that the threat of imprisonment is not an effective deterrent.

At the Bench-Bar Conference, Ken Stark noted that the research shows it usually takes some outside “trigger” to move an alcoholic or drug addict to treatment, and this trigger could be a spouse threatening to leave, the threat of the loss of a job, or the threat of a criminal sanction. That got me thinking. Next, I accepted the generous offer of a friend who is the senior public defender in the drug courts of Santa Clara County, California, to view that county’s ambitious program in action. The three Superior Court judges whom I watched and visited with were zealous in their efforts to help addicts stay out of prison.

Finally, I had the powerful and moving experience of attending the “graduation” of 14 addicts from King County’s Drug Diversion Court. I heard their stories first hand and saw Judge Michael Trickey and his dedicated staff trying with very inadequate social service and treatment resources to do what the judges in Santa Clara county are accomplishing with far superior resources. Com-bined, these facts and experiences have left me uncertain about my own initial assumptions.

The undeniable fact is that drugs can destroy the lives of addicts and harm their families and friends and society as a whole. The challenge is to find an effective way to reduce that harm. Clearly, it is not to lock people up and fail to treat their illness, as we presently do for all but the tiny fraction who are offered the choice of treatment or jail through drug diversion court. But what if everyone were given the option of treatment? If “the law” is to play a role, could it be through the civil law instead of the criminal law? These and other questions go through my mind as I await the report and recommendations of Mary Alice Theiler’s Task Force on Use of the Criminal Sanction. I hope that you, like me, will read it with an open mind.

Ask legislators to fund treatment

We don’t need to wait for answers to all the hard philosophical questions about use of the criminal sanction to utilize the undisputed research proving the cost effectiveness of treatment. Instead of criticizing our legislators for failing to lead, let’s remember that it’s the people’s job to do that in a representative democracy.

As I have urged in previous columns, let Governor Locke and your state legislators know you don’t want sick people sent to prison at your expense, whether the sickness is mental illness or alcoholism or drug addiction. Let them know you want to save the state $224 million by spending the $40 million needed this year. Let them know you want those savings increased every year until treatment is available for all who need it. Let them know you’d like to reduce the stigma of alcoholism and drug addiction so people will be able to seek treatment when their family or employer, not the police, give them a “wake-up call.”


Fred Noland is the 2000-2001 President of the King County Bar Association and a partner with McDonald, Hoague & Bayless. He can be reached at (206) 622-1604 or fred@mhb.com.

 

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