Thursday, June 14, 2012

Drug Policy Should Be More Proactive

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By Alice Tanston

The American drug epidemic is out of hand. To deal with it, we need to change the way that we find addicts and deliver the help they need. The drug treatment center can't just be a place where people go when they hit rock bottom; it needs to become a leading weapon in a war on drugs that takes the challenge to the users in a proactive and assertive way.

The first step of putting this strategy into action is to create a new office inside country health departments, tasked with conducting drug screens on anyone who is arrested or who seeks social services, and directing those who are using drugs to an appropriate treatment facility. This office should have medical staff to conduct evaluations; it should be partnered with the treatment network to connect users with help sources quickly.

Opponents of putting a drug screening system in front of social services argue that it will reduce the number of people who receive benefits. Painfully, that argument includes numerous children of parents who would rather feed a habit (and keep it undetected) than their own children. They argue that it is better to get those children the help they need regardless of whether their parents keep using.

But drug use is so often a cause or contributing factor in the need for social services that the society doesn't have an option except to become more assertive in treating that cause. That's like a doctor being told to treat a patient with cancer but with the caveat that it's unconstitutional or a violation of the patient's civil rights to treat the cancer itself.

Offenders are screened for drugs present in their system when they're arrested. However, most offenders aren't required to take a follicle test that will show a history of narcotics use. That should change. Everyone who is arrested should be subjected to a narcotics and psychological evaluation during the period before arraignment to see if mitigating circumstances exist that would have an impact on potential charges.

Opponents of any efforts to limit drug use by invasive means tend to argue that good narcotics education and cracking down on suppliers are more effective and appropriate means. Yet now we have comprehensive drug education in schools, and every 9th grader goes through the curriculum. Now we spend almost as much on the War on Drugs as we do on real wars. And drug use is still on the incline, not the decline.

America is very big-brother-conscious, and we tend to become skittish and defensive whenever an invasion of our privacy by government officials is suggested. The health risks of drug use may not be a sufficient deterrent, partly because they tend to be so distant, but the idea that we could be subjected to mandatory treatment for any drug use that shows up on a follicle test if we're ever arrested or need social services might act as a much more effective deterrent.

We are failing in our war on drugs, but it's not because we aren't trying or lack resources. It's because our strategy is wrong. We've been focusing our effort on the supply chain while largely ignoring demand. If we used the drug treatment center as a weapon, however, and by doing so reduced demand, we would have more of an effect on the supply chain than all our elaborate police task forces combined..

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