Editor’s Viewpoint: The truth is in the consequences
With the stimulus package funds starting to hit the streets — and beginning to repair a few of them — questions continue about the program’s ability to create jobs and ultimately help the economy rebound. But, if you are concerned that the American Recovery and Investment Act’s (ARRA) $787 billion is being spent productively or if it is bankrupting the government, there’s an elephant in the room that has been chewing up our resources for decades that dwarfs the ARRA’s price tag.
After three years of research, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that, beyond the tragic personal losses to the individuals and their families, the nation’s drug problem is costing us nearly $468 billion every year. That’s like renewing the stimulus package every 20 months.
Specifically, the study says that health care costs racked up the largest portion of the expenses — $207 billion. The justice system took the next largest financial hit with $47 billion spent on juvenile and family courts, incarceration, probation and parole. Overall, the costs are having a stunning financial impact on the local, state and federal governments that are supporting those systems. Of the $468 billion reported in the 2005 study (the most recent year data was available), the federal government spent $238 billion (9.6 percent of its budget), compared to nearly $136 billion by the states (15.7 percent of their budgets) and another $94 billion by local governments, or 9 percent of their budgets.
But, here’s the punch line: Less than 2 percent of the total is being spent on treating the people we are spending the money on, the addicts. CASA’s founder and chair, and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joe Califano said, “To attempt health care reform without providing for the prevention and treatment of this disease is like trying to make a Reuben sandwich without corned beef and sauerkraut.”
Some communities are taking action. Baltimore’s 15-year-old drug treatment court emphasizes therapy over incarceration. Local Rep. Elijah Cummings says that the city’s drug treatment court participants are more than three times as likely to find employment as other convicts, and one-third as likely to use drugs during treatment. There are about 1,000 such courts across the country.
We are living with the consequences of our drug policies, the primary weapon of which is fear. And, while fear can be effective, using it alone reminds me of one of my father-in-law’s expressions: “Locks are there only to keep the honest people out.”
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