Drug Demand - a New Start

Some lip service was paid to reducing the demand for illegal drugs in the United States during last week's meeting between Presidents George Bush and Vicente Fox. Getting at the demand side of the narcotics equation has always made sense, both to advocates in the US and to countries like Mexico that are often blamed for the flow of drugs across American borders.

Doing something about demand has been another matter. Drug treatment and education, two key pillars of a demand strategy, have typically taken a backseat to law-enforcement crackdowns on traffickers and users.

But there's evidence antidrug priorities may be changing. A number of states are showing signs they're wearying of the burden drug prosecutions and convictions put on their penal systems. California's passage last year of a ballot initiative to require treatment, instead of incarceration, for nonviolent drug offenders was a bold step.

Other states are venturing onto similar ground, loosening mandatory sentences for drug use or expanding treatment options. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is a pioneer on this front. He's proposing bills ranging from more money for drug rehabilitation to legalization of the "medical" use of marijuana.

As the latter idea suggests, there are serious unanswered questions about the move toward treating drug use and addiction less as a criminal matter and more as a public health problem. Where do you draw the line as you head toward any form of legalization? Will addicts stick to rehabilitation without the overhanging threat of jail? And how do you gear up to meet a huge treatment mandate like that now confronting California?

These questions don't argue against new approaches. They just underscore the need for care and thoughtfulness.

Things aren't static with drug education, either. For years, the heart of efforts to convince American kids that drugs are a very bad idea has been DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). Its approach, emphasizing lectures delivered by friendly but no-nonsense policemen, is used in 75 percent of US school districts. It's also widely used overseas.

But critics have increasingly shown there's little evidence of the program's effectiveness.

Now, with financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, DARE is attempting a remake. It is going to shift its focus from the fifth grade to middle and high school, when kids are more likely to experiment with drugs. The technique of choice will be group discussion that explores peer influence rather than "just say no" set pieces. These are sensible changes.

The new DARE will start as a test program in 256 schools scattered through a few large cities. Researchers will keep a close eye on impact.

More emphasis on treatment and more effective education still have a long way to go, but they hint that demand reduction could become more than a politically useful refrain.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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