With jails packed, more states try drug treatment
US is losing the war on drugs, some say, and needs to rethink its
Diane Jackson used to have a one-track mind driven by heroin and finding her next hit.Skip to next paragraph
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It was a road she started on 10 years ago, sniffing with friends to "deal with my family problems." The occasional weekend high soon turned into a daily addiction. She managed to keep working - most of the time - as a nurse's assistant. But she lost her dignity, she says, and ended up living in an abusive situation that fed her hunger for the pure high of heroin - though she knew it was destroying her.
"You lose your thinking, the skills you were brought up with," she says, her wide brown eyes filled with regret.
Now, clean and sober and in treatment for almost a year, Ms. Jackson is at the heart of a bold experiment in Baltimore that may give America a new way of dealing with illicit drugs.
Fed up with the failure of the criminal justice system to get heroin, cocaine, and the crime they breed out of its neighborhoods, Baltimore has decided to help addicts overcome their problem, instead of putting them in jail. The city is determined to provide treatment to any addict who requests it or is required by the court to get it - something unheard of in any other city in the country, except San Francisco, which recently set similar goals.
The efforts are part of a national rethinking of the so-called war on drugs that has packed the nation's prisons with hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, draining resources from state and local budgets while the drug problem persists, particularly in inner cities.
Earlier this month, the Clinton administration's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, calling the current criminal-justice system a "disaster," outlined a strategy to provide addicts treatment at every stage from their initial incarceration to probation. While skepticism about drug treatment's effectiveness remains high, dozens of states from Connecticut to Arizona are increasingly offering it as an alternative to incarceration. But only Baltimore and San Francisco are working toward the goal of providing what they're now calling "treatment upon request."
"The facts are that the impact of treatment is quite remarkable," says Dr. Jerome Jaffe, who was the top drug official during the Nixon administration. "You can demonstrate fairly substantial reductions in drug use while they're in treatment If you look at it a year later, you can still see effects, sometimes also substantial."
History of treatment
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as another heroin epidemic ravaged the country's cities and thousands of soldiers came home from Vietnam addicts, the Nixon administration set "drug treatment upon demand" as a national goal. But it was never fully implemented, and as the drug problem persisted and the economy faltered, resources for public treatment were cut dramatically, particularly during the Carter administration.
By the time a particularly violent crack epidemic hit the cities in the 1980s, the public was fed up and had little or no empathy for addicts. Treatment was discredited and the tough law-enforcement approach, which included long, mandatory sentences for drug offenses, became the norm.
The result: The prison population has more than tripled since 1980, and while drug use is down only slightly, the problem continues to hurt inner cities.