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States Get Tough on `Casual Users'


AUTHORITIES are starting to hold drug users accountable and are devising new penalties for possession that don't always involve jail. The state measures are in step with a key point of the Bush administration's drug control strategy announced in September: that casual drug users have been getting off easy as the war on drugs has targeted primarily dealers.

Last month, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, as part of a new $22 million drug package, vowed to strip the licenses of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals convicted on drug charges.

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Here in Massachusetts, the penalty for possession of even small amounts of drugs is a one-year suspension of driver's licenses. Those too young to drive will have to wait a year to apply for a license.

Hitting users in the wallet is being seen as one way of discouraging use - and of creating a cash flow for the programs that have to be developed because of them. New Jersey has been imposing a fine on those charged with simple possession for the last two years. The money, $6.5 million so far, gets funneled back into drug education and rehabilitation.

Michigan is thinking about resurrecting tougher penalties for possession of marijuana.

The Justice Department just opened up for public hearing their proposed regulations on civil penalties for simple possession of illicit drugs. The regulations would give someone charged with possession a choice between paying a fine of up to $10,000 or going through the criminal justice system.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 14 percent of the US population used illegal drugs in the past year, as did 22 percent of all Americans with full-time jobs.

``They're everybody,'' says Lt. John Buchanan, the demand reduction coordinator for the Maricopa County, Ariz., police department. ``They're involved at all levels of society. Casual users certainly have one thing in common - they don't think they're doing anything wrong. And they don't think they're creating a hazard to anyone else.''

Maricopa County officials think otherwise. In their user accountability program, police target areas where use is frequent - like the parking lot of a bar, and a recreation area where people float down a river in inner tubes. One day their task force arrested 25 people at a corner providing curb service for marijuana.

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THIS program combines treatment and law enforcement. Anyone arrested who has an otherwise clean record is given a choice: enter a year-long outpatient treatment program or face a felony charge. If those who choose treatment are successful, no charges are filed. So far 54 percent have chosen treatment. The more well-heeled pay up to $2,850 for treatment; there is a sliding scale for those less able.

The advantages: The program identifies people who need treatment and helps unclog the judicial system. ``There's no court preparation by the prosecutor, no docket space taken up, no probation officer,'' says Mr. Buchanan.

In July, the county also began a media campaign about its we-mean-business stand. Television public-service announcements, billboards, bumper stickers all snarl, ``Do Drugs. Do Time.''

``What we want to do is grab people by the face-mask and say, `We don't tolerate this behavior,''' Buchanan says. ``It's bad. We're going to give you the opportunity to change your lifestyle before it changes you.''

The Arizona program is one example of the comprehensive strategy initiated by the Drug Enforcement Administration that brings law enforcement, community and service groups, schools, and clergy to work toward a solution.

The federal government is putting the squeeze on as well. By next fall any business receiving federal money will have to establish drug-free workplace programs that include drug education and disseminating a policy statement with sanctions for use.

There are efforts aimed at students as well: the federal drug plan requires colleges and universities that receive federal funding to have drug-free programs.

``If you arrest somebody and make it public ..., as peer pressure against drugs rises in schools and corporations, you'll find that people don't want to besmirch their reputations,'' says Edwin DeLattre, Bradley Fellow in Applied Ethics at the American Enterprise Institute.

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