NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Americans Want Drug Addicts Rehabilitated

February 19, 2002

According to polls, more than two-thirds of Americans favor treatment over jail for first- and second-time drug offenders. But while treatment is certainly cheaper for taxpayers than warehousing, the question is whether it is effective or not.

  • About 60 percent of inmates have a history of substance abuse -- and the cost of warehousing non-violent drug offenders is more than twice as great as treating them.
  • The RAND Corp. has found that for every dollar spent on treatment, taxpayers save more than seven in other services -- largely through reduced crime and medical fees and reduced productivity.
  • A visit to an emergency room, for instance, costs as much as a month in rehabilitation -- and more than 70,000 heroin addicts are admitted to ERs annually.

As for the success or failure of rehab programs, most who choose treatment drop out before their course is completed. Among those who do finish, few maintain the gold standard of total abstinence for long, experts report.

A congressionally-mandated study has shown that more than half of cocaine addicts and nearly two-thirds of those addicted to both heroin and cocaine were using drugs once again within a year.

Despite the odds, California and Arizona voters passed initiatives requiring nonviolent drug offenders to be offered treatment with probation in lieu of jail, and similar measures are being targeted for November ballots in Michigan, Florida and Ohio.

Source: Peggy Orenstein, "Staying Clean," New York Times Magazine, February 10, 2002.


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