A Hard Choice Between Taxpayer-Funded Drug Treatment and Decriminalization


On Friday I received a press release from the Drug Policy Alliance (apparently not available online) with the headline "Drug Decriminalization Could Begin in California July 1." Good news, right? Wrong:

Beginning July 1, Californians convicted of using heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or marijuana may simply be sent home. The Drug Policy Alliance warned today that drug treatment providers in the state are running out of money and that failing to allocate funding will decriminalize drug use.

In 2000, California voters passed Prop. 36, the state's treatment-instead-of-incarceration law, permanently changing state law so that all eligible nonviolent drug possession offenders must be given the option of treatment. Eligible offenders cannot be jailed unless they are given treatment first.

Daniel Abrahamson, Drug Policy Alliance's Director of Legal Affairs, said, "Prop. 36 clearly prohibits the incarceration of most low-level nonviolent drug offenders. This doesn't change if the state decides to zero out funding for treatment. We drafted Prop. 36 this way to force the state to commit sufficient treatment resources."

Abrahamson continued, "If the state fails to invest in Prop. 36 treatment, at least California won't have to waste money jailing nonviolent drug offenders. We have de facto decriminalization of drug use."

With drug treatment funding set to run out on July 1—and with it, the option to send people to drug treatment—the state is under the gun. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed $120 million for Prop. 36—a figure widely agreed to be much too low—and legislators recently set a slightly higher figure.

But in Sacramento now, there are two threats to Prop. 36 funding: some legislators may refuse to vote for Prop. 36 money without certain changes to the citizen initiative, or the governor might strike out the money if he is not satisfied with policy changes approved by the legislature.

I've always had mixed feelings about laws that mandate "treatment" rather than jail for certain categories of drug offenders. On the one hand, most people arrested for drug possession presumably would prefer treatment, no matter how coercive, unnecessary, or bogus. On the other hand, putting aside complaints about using taxpayers' money for this purpose (it's also used to lock up drug offenders, after all), mandatory treatment reinforces the idea that using politically disfavored intoxicants is a disease; it requires a highly invasive form of re-education; and it disguises punishment as therapy, which in turn reduces public discomfort with the war on drugs. But here we have the Drug Policy Alliance—whose executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, rarely misses an opportunity to say that people should never be punished merely for the chemicals they choose to introduce into their own bodies—playing to irrational fears of drug users by warning the public that a cut in government funding for treatment might lead to decriminalization. If so, all I can say is, "Go, Arnold!"

NEXT: Anti-Drug Bias

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Why the hell should the tax payer spend any money for treatment? Fuck em. I will support decriminalization if in return we stop taking my tax dollars to fun someone else’s mistakes and addictions. If someone is dumb enough to get hooked on drugs, that is their problem not the tax payers.

  2. Doing anything to drug users is a waste of tax dollars.

    That said, drug treatment is a fraction of the cost of incarceration. Back in the mid 90s in Brooklyn it was 17K per year for treatment vs 30K per year for incarceration.

  3. But we must protect the citizens from themselves john! 😉

  4. The problem NYer is that the treatment only works if they want to quit. If you don’t back the treatment up with the threat of jail then it doesn’t work and if you do back it up with the threat of jail we are right back to throwing huge numbers of people in jail for drug use. Ultimately, some people just don’t want to quit and nothing is going to stop them from using. Doing anything with them is just a waste of time and money.

  5. John, You’re preaching to the choir!! It was only the motivated who would complete treatment, and they only took people who had community ties which were verified by a police visit before acceptance into the program.

    But what would we do with all our cops if we said “Legalize it”?

  6. It’s my understanding that these treatment programs basically require you to talk about all the horrible things drugs have done to you, or else you’re “not cooperating with treatment” and will go to jail. And it’s not enough to say “Drugs led to my getting arrested for drugs,” either; you must tell tawdry tales of losing friends, lovers and jobs, or at least ONE experience traumatic enough to make a decent Lifetime Channel trauma movie.

    I once ate an entire box of Froot Loops. I wonder if that’s tawdry enough?

  7. Jennifer,

    I had several friends in college whose crazy parents sent them to drug rehab for just being messed up kids. They were not and never had been addicts. Rather than realizing that the parents were just sending their problems to them, the rehab places would just deny them priviliges or any hope of getting out until they admited to their problem. Shockingly, everyone was cured but not until their insurance ran out. The drug rehab industry is a really nasty one.

  8. John, I have no difficulty at all believing that.

    Slightly off-topic: does anyone know of a case of a person convicted of lying during drug treatment? I already mentioned that you are required to tell all sorts of tawdry tales or else you go to jail. For many people, that means they have to lie or go to jail. So has anyone got in trouble for inventing such tales? “She said that drugs drove her to prostitution but we found NO evidence that she ever had sex for money!” “He claims that drug abuse cost him his job but he’s never been fired!”

  9. Jacob, I think you missed the point of the Press Release.

    The concern is not that it will lead to decriminalization as evidenced in the quotes of Daniel Abrahamson in the press release. The concern is relayed in the last paragraph that states:” some legislators may refuse to vote for Prop. 36 money without certain changes to the citizen initiative”. These changes are discussed here and include jail time for “drug relapses”, effectively gutting Prop 36. The Governator supports these changes and has made funding of the drug treatment programs contingent on the changes.

  10. Jen,

    If they’re in the business of believing pot is dangerous, they’ll never bother to check the facts on anything other than your ability to pay.

  11. I’ve never heard of anyone going to jail because they lied in treament. There were a number of folks who escaped from the treatment facility and were caught and locked up. There were even a couple who were not accepted into treatment because they denied all drug use during the entrance interview.

  12. I once ate an entire box of Froot Loops. I wonder if that’s tawdry enough?

    Oh, Christ. I do that all the time. Except, they’re not real Froot Loops, but the off-brand kind that Dollar General Store sells. Here’s the really sad part: I don’t use illegal drugs.

  13. Howzabout this paradigm:

    Legalize drug use by adults. If someone is charged with a crime, a defense of “I was drunk” or “I was high” will not be accepted. However, the accused can make a plea bargain that commits him to an assessment. Should it be determined that he probably has a drinking or drugs problem, counseling or treatment can be made part of the plea agreement. If he’s just blaming the chemicals as a dodge, the D.A. rewrites or withdraws the plea. The accused can accept the plea or go to trial.

    Treatment would be paid for by insurance, if one has that coverage. Otherwise, any court-ordered treatment is paid for by the offender, over time, if necessary. I suppose a non-profit group could subsidize treatment for the indigent. Having the state pay for the indigent would be a last resort. I wouldn’t prefer that, but it might be cheaper than jailing folks.

    Some folks would need to jailed, anyway, drugs or no.


  14. kevrob,
    Personally, that sounds like a doable process. For all of the negative effects that drugs have none of them is crime. To blame your criminal behavior on booze, crank, pot or whatever is just an attempt to shift responsibility off of your shoulders. I don’t care if the person was stoned out of his gourd or stone cold sober when he hit the school bus full of kids, he is to blame. With personal freedom comes personal responsibility.

  15. Drugs do not cause addiction.

    Even the NIDA agress with that.

    Yet every single comment and Jacob’s article are based on that false premise. It is like a religion where science is not allowed to come between a believer and his belief.

    When the moderator gets around to it you will see here a longer post from me on the subject with some links. In the mean time let me leave you with this:

    Is Addiction Real?

  16. kevrob, that is an excellent proposal. Yes, yes, I know, it isn’t the ideal pure libertarian situation, but it is nonetheless an excellent proposal. I think such a proposal would be a key part of any compromise that brought about drug legalization.

  17. kevorb, thoreau, etc.

    Suppose people are taking the drugs for medical reasons (relief from PTSD for instance). Why exactly do such people need “treatment” to wean them off drugs?

    Some day the idea of addiction will go the way of phlogiston. The sooner the better.

  18. Suppose people are taking the drugs for medical reasons (relief from PTSD for instance). – M. Simon

    As part of the assessment process, determining if you had acted up as a result of your prescription meds should result in nothing more than a referral to your doctor to adjust or change your prescription. Some people do start out taking drugs for medical reasons and wind up over-medicated. Reason has run many an article on how the law and the courts are messed up on that issue, mainly because they confuse doctoring with running a recreational drug ring. In a better world, the professional organizations of M.D.s and pharmacists would self-police the rogue Dr. Feelgoods.


  19. BTW, don’t take anything I have written as support for the idea that being an addict* should be illegal. My only concern is with those who show by their actions that they have not learned how to get drunk or otherwise get wasted without violating the rights of others. Under my plan, one can always refuse the assessment process and face the music without a medical excuse. Good luck with that. Even under our current system, “I was drunk and need help” is a better defense than “I am a dumbass.”


    * Assuming that something like “addiction” exists. One needn’t be an addict to abuse drugs or alcohol , however, just as being an “addict” does not necessarily drive one to criminal acts.

  20. kevorb,

    My thesis is that the whole idea of addiction is superstition. People take drugs because they need them. Habituation (a chemical change in the body) we know how to treat. Detox.

    What we are ignorant of is why some who have been detoxed go back to using. Current science (of which most are ignorant) has the answer. Changes in the brain caused by trauma. And why do only some respond that way? We know the answer to that too. Genetics.

    I maintain the reason for chronic drug use is because drugs give relief from chronic conditions such as PTSD. It is not a matter of adjusting the dose.

    The whole drug war these days is more about supporting the medical cartel than any concern for “addiction” and its spread.

    Addiction or Self Medication?

    You do not catch addiction from drugs.

    Thus the whole premise of the drug war and “treatment” is false. False premise, lousy results.

    “Unless we put medical freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize an undercover dictatorship. To restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of medical science. All such laws are un-American and despotic, and have no place in a Republic. The Constitution of this Republic should make special privilege for medical freedom as well as religious freedom.” abridged quote –Benjamin Rush, M.D., a signer of the Declaration of Independence

  21. How much longer until Rush gets anally raped in prison? I’ll be throwing a party when that goes down, and you’re all invited!

  22. kevorb,

    We have ways of dealing with those who violate the rights of others.

    It is called criminal law.

    We are not talking here about malum per se. We are discussing malum prohibitum.

    I thought we were dealing here with the laws against self medication.

    BTW in the old days (1860s) we used to understand better the connection between trauma and the use of alcohol in “excess”. At least when it came to soldiers:

    The Soldiers Disease

    The whole drug war is a persecution of the traumatized.

  23. kevorb,

    It is not a matter of whether addiction should be legal or not. It is a matter that the whole idea of addiction is a misdiagnosis.

    A doctor speaks:

    A well known secret

  24. People take drugs because they need them.

    People take meth and crack because they need it? Boy, if that’s the case, I’d hate to see what they looked like before the meth and crack, then. “Before, I was a 98-pound weakling with thinning hair and no life. Now, I’m a prematurely-aged 80-pound weakling with no hair, chronic nosebleeds, few teeth and no job, but I have a very active life searching for ways to pay for my next hit.”

    I’d love to see drug use decriminalized, as long as I still have the right to shoot the stoned-out f***ers if they attempt to vandalize or steal my property.

  25. zero,

    You might find this of interest re: stimulants:

    The War On Unpatented Drugs.

  26. I don’t think mandatory rehab programs are great, but I gotta say that they are such a monumental improvement over putting human beings in cages that if popular will makes me take this policy step first, I do so gladly.

  27. Arnold wants to put people in jail if rehab failure???? WTF. Is Arnold saying you can’t use and not be addicted? Hold on I have to go read my “In defence of hypocrisy” book so I can understand this. 🙂

  28. If the underlying cause of “addiction” is PTSD (for which there is no known cure) and “addicts” are self medicating for that problem then relapse is inevitable.

    So we are back to the same old same old. If you do not understand the cause of a problem attempts to fix it will not be effective.

  29. I’d love to see drugs fully legalized and not just decriminalized. They used to sell heroin as cough medicine before opium was scheduled.

  30. Legalize all drugs. Make sure people have an opportunity to know what they are getting. If someone causes harm to another while high (or not), hold them responsible. If people need help to stop using drugs, non-profit groups would likely develop to serve the need. Can you envision how nice it would be to get rid of the violent crime associated with the illegal drug trade? In fact, we could all join the war on terror by promoting home grown products.

  31. rm2muv,

    If people are self medicating why would they need help quitting drugs?

    Should people be helping insulin addicts quit their drug of choice?

  32. Is it time to start talking about putting a real Ganja decriminalization law on the ballot as an initiave in California? Even William F. Buckley seems amenable to the idea.
    Any law could decriminalize it in California, and direct out Legislators to introduce legislation to legalize it federally. There might be some fights about enforcement, but those rarely make the drug warriors look good.
    Are there any poll numbers for California out there? If we can get laws designed to make it difficult for the Teachers’ Unions to operate on the ballot, surely there’s got to be a way to get this on there.

  33. Is it time to start talking about putting a real Ganja decriminalization law on the ballot as an initiave in California?

    I have wondered why this hasn’t happened already, considering that it’s been tried in Nevada (2002, 39%) and Alaska (2004, 44%), and will be tried in Nevada again this Nov, and maybe Colorado as well.

  34. M. Simon, you are obviously overgeneralizing. Lots of people are happy without drugs, and happier with some drugs. These people are not self-“medicating,” they are not treating an illness. Unless of course you want to expand the definition of illness so as to include any sort of less-than-optimal affective state or mood, which would seem pretty silly.

  35. I don’t think mandatory rehab programs are great, but I gotta say that they are such a monumental improvement over putting human beings in cages

    If you’ve actually been through the government-mandated rehab system, you’ll see that it’s nothing more than a smokescreen for asset forfeiture. And if you don;t have enough assets to forfeit, then you go in the cage.

    Believe me, it is only a slight improvement, not “monumental”. Especially since they make it easier and easier to be caught and put into the system to begin with.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.