Bush's drug plan: a violation of church-state divide?

His proposal to provide vouchers for treatment may fund programs that don't meet federal standards.

Wanda Haskins believes she's fully qualified to head up a successful drug-treatment program. The reason is simple: "Been there, done that," says the former crack addict.

Although the Virginia native has no formal training, she's now the director of New Life for Girls, a nondenominational Christian drug-treatment center in the Bronx.

Such situations are at the crux of the controversy over President Bush's pledge this week to create a $600 million program to help an additional 300,000 people receive drug treatment over the next three years.

While the substance-abuse treatment community welcomed the overall program as a significant step, many are also wary of its details. It would create a voucher program that would allow individuals a choice of where to receive treatment - and included is a provision that could allow federal dollars to be used to support faith-based programs. A number of these programs, like New Life for Girls, rely on the word of God rather than on formal training to help addicts. As a result, many don't meet federal standards on credentialing and training.

But still, the fact that drug treatment was even mentioned in Mr. Bush's State of the Union address was seen as victory. "Drug treatment has been woefully underfunded for many years," says Dr. Peter Provet, president of Odyssey House, a substance-abuse agency based in New York. "Proposing to allocate a significant amount of money toward treatment is very, very important."

It's estimated there are 5 million people addicted to illicit drugs in the United States, according to the National Household Survey done by the Department of Human Services. In 2000, only 800,000 had access to treatment services.

The president's proposed voucher program would make it possible for another 100,000 people a year to receive drug treatment. It would also create the first structural change in the way the federal government delivers drug treatment in a generation. Instead of most treatment funds going to states in block grants, this new money will go to individuals.

"This structural change ties the help and the ability to get services directly to the assessment that people need services, whether that's residential or outpatient," says John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy.

Advocates of drug treatment support the notion of giving consumers genuine choice, but many are alarmed by the faith-based details of this particular plan. Currently, programs that are not certified by state or federal governments, and in which the staff has no formal training, are not eligible for federal funds.

"To set up a system which is not accountable for standards and quality is not a constructive step," says David Rosenbloom of Join Together, a substance-abuse research program in Boston. "Whether that's a religious organization, community-based treatment, or fancy hospitals, they all need to be accountable to the same set of quality standards."

Civil libertarians are even more concerned that it would violate the separation of church and state by allowing federal dollars to be used to fund religious conversions, which is at the heart of programs such as New Life for Girls. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit advocacy group, announced this week that it plans to challenge the program in court.

"It's inconsistent with the traditions of American society," says the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United. "We don't fund religious activities, even good ones."

Mr. Walters believes such concerns are a red herring and points out that many treatment programs are based on Alcoholic Anonymous's 12-step program, which has spiritual foundation. He says he wants to be sure the program isn't "bigoted," and that facilities aren't excluded simply "because they have people of faith working there, or that they bring the power of their faith to recovery."

In Wanda Haskins's experience, finding God was the only thing that she says could keep her clean. She went through four secular treatment programs and failed to stay sober before finding New Life for Girls.

"The counseling we do is the word of God, and I know it works because it worked for me," she says.

Most treatment experts agree a spiritual component is important in recovery, but many are wary of that being tied to any particular faith. They also note studies have shown that the programs with the most success are those that follow the National Institute of Drug Abuse's protocols, which programs such as New Life reject.

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