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States treating drug abuse as illness

/ Source: The Associated Press

States have taken sweeping action in recent years to roll back “get-tough” approaches on drug policy, turning toward prevention, treatment and other alternatives to fight addiction, a new report from an advocacy group found.

The survey of new laws between 1996 and 2001 found that states were adopting anti-drug approaches that treat addiction more like an illness than a crime, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports such an approach. The report was released Tuesday.

“Our key hope for this report is that legislators around the country will increasingly appreciate that it’s possible to introduce and support and enact sensible drug policy reforms without being accused of being soft on drugs or being soft on crime,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the alliance’s executive director.

Financial problems also are helping to drive the changes in many places, as deficit-ridden states seek to cut costs. A state prison inmate, on average, costs the government $30,000 a year, the report said, citing federal studies.

Nadelmann said the group recognizes that trend, and is hoping to make cost-savings part of their argument as they continue to seek changes on the state and federal levels.

The study found that voters in 17 states have approved drug-reform initiatives, largely to approve marijuana use for medical purposes, to allow for treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenses, or to ease laws on seizing assets in drug cases.

In only two states — Massachusetts and Washington state — did such voter initiatives fail at the polls, the report found.

Overall, 46 states passed laws to ease tough laws on drug violations, including:

  • Sentencing reforms in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Restoring some or all welfare eligibility to drug offenders in 29 states.
  • Allowing marijuana use for medical needs in nine states and the District of Columbia.

The study characterized the approach as one of “harm reduction.”

"the awareness that not just drug abuse, but also misguided drug policies, can cause grave harms to individuals and society.”

Nadelmann said that as state lawmakers embrace such changes without a backlash from voters, he hoped to see similar changes on the federal level.

According to a report released last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, America’s prison population grew again in 2002 despite a declining crime rate, costing the federal government and states an estimated $40 billion a year.

Experts say mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders, are a major reason inmate populations have risen for 30 years. About one of every 143 U.S. residents was in the federal, state or local custody by the end of 2002.

The Drug Policy Alliance was created by the merger in 2000 of The Lindesmith Center and The Drug Policy Foundation with the objective to build a national drug policy reform movement.

The alliance advocates, among other steps, making marijuana legally available for medical purposes, redirecting government resources from criminal justice to public health and supporting syringe exchange and other harm reduction programs to battle infectious diseases.