About-Face for Drug Users

California, that incubator of change, inaugurated a great experiment this month. People arrested in the state for drug possession - an estimated 37,000 this year - will be sent to treatment centers rather than prison.

Last year, Californians passed Proposition 36, which specified first- or second-time nonviolent drug offenders would be treated, not jailed. Proponents hailed it as a major move away from the "war" image and toward treating drug use with a public-health strategy.

Up to now, simply shunting such offenders off to prison has done relatively little to curb drug use. For many of them, only mandatory treatment holds out hope of breaking their habits.

Whether that hope is fully realized depends largely on the desire and attitude of the person being treated, and on the skill of drug counselors. But it also depends on the resources that California's counties bring to the task.

Plenty of warnings were sounded before the July 1 kickoff. Most had to do with funding - funding for drug testing to be sure people stay clean, or for counselors to staff already- stretched drug-rehab centers.

Those warnings were valid. State and local officials should closely watch the situation to see where added resources may be needed.

Meanwhile, the country will be watching to see how this right-minded experiment plays out.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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