NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Maryland Drug Tests Probationers To Discourage Drug Use

May 5, 1999

Some states are turning to probation, treatment and drug testing as an alternative to incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders, says journalist David Broder. The programs appear to be working.

In the most dramatic policy shift, Arizona passed a voter initiative in 1996 that required people convicted of drug possession for the first or second time be placed on probation and in treatment, rather than going to jail.

Now Maryland has begun a program aimed at getting all 25,000 of the state's parolees and probationers into a rigorous drug testing regimen. Half the country's entire consumption of heroin and cocaine is by people on probation or parole, says Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, coordinator the state's anti- crime program. Thus, the state's "Break the Cycle" program, directed at this population, could significantly reduce demand for drugs.

The twice-a-week tests began last fall, and the first results "are so good we are leery about them," said Adam Gelb, policy director for Lt. Gov. Townsend.

  • After three months, the percentage testing positive dropped from 40 percent to just 7.4 percent -- a drop of more than four-fifths.
  • Before the program began, a probation officer could order only about seven drug tests a month for a typical caseload of 100 probationers -- and if someone failed, punishment was up to a judge.
  • In the new system, the courts have preauthorized an escalating set of penalties for each failed test, up to a return to jail.

With the certainty of punishment and hope for shortened probation for staying clean, the incentives to seek treatment are vastly greater.

Even Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the federal "drug czar," agrees that "prevention and treatment are the primary tools in our fight against drugs."

Source: David Broder (Washington Post), "States Find New Strategy Shows Promise in War on Drugs," Dallas Morning News, May 2, 1999.


Browse more articles on Government Issues