Drug treatment: Just say no

March 30, 2004|By Jeffrey A. Schaler

THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY should reject Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to enhance drug treatment and education programs.

Drug users can pay for their own "treatment" if they really want help. They found the money to buy drugs, they can find the money to buy treatment. State funding for addiction treatment only helps addiction treatment providers.

The most popular way of helping people with drug and alcohol problems is through free self-help programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery. Citizens create these programs and groups on their own. They are self-supporting. Self help means self help. It doesn't mean state help. The state should stay out of the religious and secular cure of souls.

If people are willing to break the law to get money to buy drugs, they should be punished for breaking the law. Drug use is not a valid excuse for law-breaking. Many illegal drug dealers are neither violent nor drug users. Why do they need treatment? Treatment for what? They're in jail for illegal, consensual business transactions. Medicine has nothing to do with it.

If the state views criminal acts as stemming from a mythical disease called drug addiction, then people labeled as drug addicts must necessarily be exculpated for the harm they do to others. Viewing crime as a product of addiction is a version of the insanity defense. It's also a slippery slope. Any number of criminal behaviors can be said to stem from "behavior disease."

Common sense tells us that addiction is a choice, not a disease. Behaviors cannot be diseases. Homosexuality and heterosexuality refer to behaviors, not to diseases. Drug use is a behavior, not a disease. Going to the church, synagogue or mosque of your choice is a behavior, not a disease.

People struggling with real diseases - heart disease, diabetes, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver - have nothing in common with people who selfishly ingest drugs to avoid coping with problems. They can't choose to abstain from cancer or diabetes.

As they say in AA, "The first thing to go is the truth." The truth is that drug users complain and lie about how they can't control their behavior. The truth is there's no such thing as an involuntary behavior. The truth is that comparing drug users to people with real diseases is cruel to people with real diseases.

A final point to consider is that treatment for addiction is increasingly viewed by courts as a religious activity. When the state entangles itself in treatment, it violates the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. The state conceded this point in Maryland vs. Norfolk in 1988, a case involving an atheist who was sentenced to attend AA meetings after he was convicted of driving while intoxicated.

I was a consultant to the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Ellen Luff, who argued that case. Ms. Luff, a longtime member of AA, argued that the state had no business "inside a person's head." Maryland Circuit Judge John W. Sause Jr. agreed.

As they consider the Ehrlich administration proposals, Maryland legislators would be wise to examine the evidence that treatment for addiction is simply a problem masquerading as a cure.

Jeffrey A. Schaler teaches in the department of justice, law and society at American University's School of Public Affairs. He lives in Ellicott City.

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