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Olympia WA
14 December 2001

Study calls for treatment, not prison, for drug users

SEATTLE -- Putting drug users in prison is the most costly and least effective way to fight drug abuse, according to a study supported by a coalition of doctors, lawyers and pharmacists.

"We need to shift from a punitive legal model to a public health model," said Fred Noland, a Seattle lawyer who prompted the policy review.

The King County Bar Association conducted the one-year study and won support for it from the Washington State Bar Association, the Washington State Medical Association, the King County Medical Society and the Washington State Pharmacy Association. But in a Nov. 5 letter to the state bar, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng expressed reservations about the study, which was publicly released on Wednesday. "The report ultimately concludes that we should eliminate criminal sanctions for drug users, abusers, manufacturers and traffickers, but it offers no other alternative," Maleng wrote.

Noland and others emphasized that the report does not call for decriminalizing drugs entirely. It says while simple possession should not result in jail, it still shouldn't be legal. Although it does not say what kind of sanctions should be imposed, it mentions court-required treatment, fines or contempt citations. Jail -- which costs $25,000 a year per inmate -- hasn't worked, the report says.

A state bar association resolution calls for retaining criminal sanctions for conduct that puts others at risk, such as violent behavior, driving under the influence or providing mind-altering drugs to minors. But jailing drug users has not deterred them, the study says. Drug use has increased, the state's courts are clogged and its prisons are overflowing with people arrested for drug possession, said Ken Davidson, a governor of the state bar association.

"We don't pretend to have all the answers," said Noland, adding, "We're all very aware this is a very difficult political subject." The report said Washington's sentences for possession and sale of drugs are more severe than in many other states. And its punishments for small sales are longer than for assault and robbery.

But Maleng said doing away with criminal sanctions for drug use could result in more drug abuse. And drug courts, which offer offenders the chance to avoid jail if they follow a strict treatment program, have been successful because the threat of jail deters users from reoffending, he said. Noland said, "There's a counter-argument that treatment that's provided voluntarily is much more effective than treatment a drug court imposes." Noland pointed to initiatives passed in California and Arizona in recent years that ended jail for most possession cases. Arizona spent $1 million in 1999 on treatment and supervision of 390 inmates kept out of prison under its new law. Imprisonment of those inmates would have cost $7.7 million, a study by Arizona's court administrator's office found.

Bills are expected to be introduced in the Legislature in January to reduce sentences for drug possession and possibly also for small sales. "We're going to support anybody who proposes to drastically reduce or eliminate altogether jail sentences for simple drug possession," said Noland.

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