Governors seek new way to halt drugs

In a growing shift, some Republicans are calling for treatment rather than incarceration.

For decades, the so-called war on drugs was sacrosanct politically - a must-win that both Republicans and Democrats championed, some for fear of being tagged "soft on crime."

But a quiet revolution is brewing that could transform the nation's approach to dealing with illicit drug use. And some of the leading rebels, and newest converts, are state-level Republicans.

With drug offenders bulging the seams of the nation's prisons and draining state coffers, officials are talking more openly about the alternative of court-ordered drug treatment, as evidence grows that it is more effective than prison in reducing recidivism and returning people to productive lives.As a result, the roster of the reform movement is expanding rapidly from its traditionally small liberal base to include some big-name Republicans, including Govs. George Pataki of New York and Gary Johnson of New Mexico.

"States are going to have to be the engines of reform," says Governor Johnson. "The reason is that it's too hot to touch from a national political standpoint. You're going to have to see it at a local state level, before it really catches fire and national politicians take it on."

But some reform advocates, like columnist Arianna Huffington, are hoping the Bush administration will also look for a new way to ameliorate the drug damage done in this country. So far President Bush, who has yet to announce a new drug czar, has sent conflicting signals about how his administration will approach drug policy.His campaign rhetoric hewed closely to the "war on drug" theme. But as governor of Texas, he supported some prison-based treatment programs. And since taking office, he has appointed a conservative criminologist to a high-level White House post who's come out against mandatory minimum sentences for drug users.

"I believe he has an opportunity to do a 'Nixon goes to China' on this," says Ms. Huffington.

The current drug policy, which is based primarily around mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders, emerged out of frustration with spiraling rates of drug use in late 1970s. New York's then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller decided the best deterrent was guaranteed jail time.

What became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws set long sentences - 15 years to life for selling two ounces of a narcotic or possessing four.

That get-tough strategy became a model for the nation.It was designed to stop drug kingpins before their wares got to the streets.But few high level dealers were caught. Instead, the nation's prison population quadrupled, adding hundreds of thousands of low-level dealers, young couriers, and desperate addicts, like Jennifer Lugo.

The Brooklyn native starting using when she was 13. When she "woke up" at 40, she was facing her fourth felony conviction for possession and selling narcotics."I was always my own best customer," she says.

She did try drug treatment at one time, but ended up getting addicted to methadone and the prescription drug Xanex and soon found herself right back where she started. She was sure she was headed "upstate" to prison once again.

"At that point in my life I felt hopeless, helpless, I had no self-esteem, no motivation, and I was actually scared to come off all of these drugs," she says.

The fact that she was an addict first and a dealer second caught the eye of prosecutors.She was given an opportunity to participate in New York's Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison Program (DTAP). Under the program, started by the Brooklyn district attorney's office 10 years ago, offenders are offered two years of court-ordered drug treatment.If they fail to complete it or re-offend, they'll end up in prison, facing the same sentence they did before treatment.

"I was tired, detox scared me, but it was the first time I took a look at my life," Ms. Lugo says. "I didn't see any kind of a light at any tunnel."

That was three years ago. Lugo completed the program and is now a case manager at Samaritan Village, a drug treatment center in Richmond Hill in Queens.When she walks through the halls, it's clear the clients and co-workers think of her as a star - someone who'd been down so far, no one thought she'd manage to come up.

"When you meet her on the street, you'd have no idea where she was just a few years ago," says Ann Swern, the prosecutor who heads the DTAP Program.

A recent study shows DTAP has reduced the recidivism rates of its graduates by more than 50 percent. It's also saved the state more than $18 million.

Studies of similar alternative programs around the country have produced similar results. "Science backs up our analysis that treatment is not only more benign and less expensive, it's more effective in responding to the drug problem than imprisonment," says Robert Gangi, head of the Correctional Association of New York.

Those successes prompted Governor Pataki to begin the year by proposing reforms of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. He would reduce some sentences and mandate treatment for some first-time, nonviolent offenders. While it doesn't go as far as some critics would like, they do call it a "good first step."

New Mexico's Johnson has gone much further. He's called for probation and treatment for first and second time drug offenders in lieu of jail. Increased spending on prevention and education programs, as well as new funds for voluntary treatment centers. His goal is to move "from an incarceration model to a medical model" as a way to reduce "the harm that drugs perpetrate on society."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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