Treat drug abuse as a public health threat
While significant progress has been made in recent years to curb the production and flow of illicit narcotics, more needs to be done to reduce drug-related crime and cut drug consumption throughout the Americas. Ultimately, illegal drug use represents one of the biggest social and economic threats to societies throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Numerous studies have shown the underlying connection of substance abuse to crime. Eighty percent of inmates have a history of drug abuse and 50 percent are addicted. More alarming, approximately 80 percent of drug abusers commit a new crime, typically drug-driven, after their release from prison and 95 percent of addicted prisoners relapse upon release. As a first step to a comprehensive approach to confront drug dependency, it is crucial that nations of the Americas address the root cause of the problem. Treatment is necessary to break the all-too-frequent cycle of a life of drug dependency, crime and incarceration.
Last year, the member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a new hemispheric drug strategy that will help develop policies to focus not only on supply and control, but also on drug dependence. This strategy explicitly recognizes that drug dependency is a chronic, relapsing disease that must be dealt with as a core element of public health policy. It is a disease on par with diabetes, hypertension or asthma that requires proper medical care to treat the underlying causes.
The OAS strategy goes hand in hand with the recent shift in drug policy in the United States. The U.S. administration has allocated more resources to drug prevention and treatment, a move that parallels the hemispheric view that drug abuse and dependence are primarily public health issues.
Similarly, among its recommendations, the OAS drug strategy promotes treatment as an alternative to incarceration for drug dependent persons who commit relatively minor crimes. This includes the establishment of drug courts where recovery is closely supervised by a judge with the power to swiftly reward progress and rebuke relapses.
Now, the OAS has launched a program in several Caribbean countries, soon to be extended to Latin America, to help establish these drug courts. In addition to the judge, drug treatment courts draw on the experience of prosecutors, defense lawyers, health professionals and police to rehabilitate and reintegrate individuals back into the community. This approach, fairly widespread in the United States but less common elsewhere, has proven successful in reducing repeat offenses and relapse into drug use.
A recent study conducted by the OAS and American University concluded that treatment reduces substance abuse by 50 percent, decreases criminal activity by 80 percent and reduces re-arrests by up to 64 percent. However, today less than 20 percent of these offenders receive treatment for their drug dependence.
Drug treatment not only lowers recidivism rates, it is also cost-effective, something we should consider especially in these trying economic times. According to the U.S. National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), in the United States, the modality of drug courts, as a treatment alternative to incarceration, saves taxpayers more than $3 for every $1 invested in avoided criminal justice costs alone. When considering other cost offsets, such as savings from reduced victimization and healthcare service utilization, benefits range up to $12 for every $1 invested. Drug courts produce cost savings ranging from $4,000 to $12,000 per client. These savings reflect reduced prison costs, reduced revolving-door arrests and trials, and reduced victimization.
In short, drug courts significantly reduce drug use and crime and are more cost-effective than any other proven criminal justice strategy.
Unfortunately, adequate treatment options are lacking in most of the hemisphere. Focused policies and actions are needed. In this regard, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, a specialized OAS agency, is successfully training drug treatment counselors and therapists to help certify these experts, thereby enhancing the quality of services throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
In addition, the OAS is helping universities incorporate addiction studies into the curricula of their schools of medicine, nursing, public health and law, thereby assuring that new graduates in these fields will have a better understanding of addiction.
By progressively reducing dependence among hard core drug users, our programs not only help reduce the demand for drugs but they also affect the profitability of the transnational criminal organizations that threaten the economies, the security and the democratic governance of our hemisphere. This multilateral approach is fundamental to address the complex and dynamic drug problem.
Lives are being destroyed, governments are being challenged, and economies are being pressured at an ever-increasing level throughout the Americas. The time has come for our member states, and nations throughout the world, to make this moral imperative a top strategic priority. The time has come for new ideas, for a more forward-thinking dialogue, and for more proactive action.
Jose Miguel Insulza
Secretary general of the Organization of American States.