The front line of drug-policy reform in America now runs through California, which soon will embark on the nation's largest experiment in treating rather than punishing drug-use offenders.
The program is big and bold. But its success will be mapped in the interaction between individuals like Lloyd, a local drug addict, and Tyrone Jenkins, his probation officer.
Lloyd (not his real name) was convicted of cocaine and heroin possession two years ago, put on probation, and assigned to Mr. Jenkins. Since then, the case has fallen into a cycle of treatment and relapse, treatment and relapse.
Finally, Jenkins "went Hollywood," as he calls it. He threatened to send Lloyd to prison for violating his probation, something Jenkins can't really do unilaterally, but a tactic he often employs, with considerable theatrical flourish, to frighten his charges into compliance. The case is now back before a judge.
Like many of the officers of San Francisco's reform-minded Adult Probation Department, Jenkins is a staunch advocate of treatment. But he's also ambivalent about whether California's new policy will work.
For treatment to work, the drug user "has to want it up here," says Jenkins, tapping his head. But Jenkins has found that the "stick" of threatened imprisonment can help drug offenders "want it" even before any kind of internal transformation takes place. It's that "stick" he fears losing.
That, however, is one of the underpinnings of California's sweeping new effort, approved overwhelmingly by voters last month. The guiding philosophy is that "sticks" and coercion haven't worked in the war on drugs, which has packed the nation's prisons with nearly 500,000 people on drug convictions during the past 20 years.
Further, reform advocates say society should reserve its punishment in drug-related cases for behavior that threatens or harms others, rather than actions that only damage oneself. Punish the manufacture and selling of drugs, say reformers, but not its use. Heavy use and dependency are a type of illness that will respond best to treatment, in their view.
The California approach is not new in principle. Arizona pioneered emphasis on treatment rather than punishment for nonviolent drug-use offenders with an initiative passed in 1996 and reaffirmed in 1998. New York has by judicial decree moved to greater emphasis on treatment.
But what has gone on before is considered nothing more than a lab experiment compared with the scope of what is about to take place in the nation's largest state.
"This is the single most significant development in drug-policy reform in decades," says Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center in New York. "It's momentous."
Indeed, 35,000 drug offenders annually will be diverted from prison and jail into treatment programs, according to California's Legislative Analyst's Office. After accounting for the cost of the vast new treatment program, the state is projected to save $500 million during the next five years in reduced prison-operation and construction costs.
The treatment-versus-punishment track record so far seems to be promising, if incomplete.
In Arizona, an analysis by the state Supreme Court found treatment programs were achieving a "high level" of compliance. The basis of that assessment is a statistic showing that 76 percent of drug offenders in treatment had negative urinalyses when tested during the 1997-98 fiscal year.
Several earlier studies, including one from RAND, have found that a dollar spent on treatment saves $7 on societal costs associated with incarceration and punishment.
California's approach goes further than Arizona's in many respects. For instance, parolees of nonviolent crimes who are arrested for drug use are not sent back to prison, but rather to treatment. Also, a felony drug offender can effectively erase the offense if he or she completes a treatment program.
The ballot initiative requires the state to spend $120 million annually on treatment during the next five years, and one of its most controversial components is that it prohibits use of any of those funds for drug testing. While judges and treatment centers can continue to require testing, those behind California's policy were clearly trying to force new spending on other aspects of treatment.
"Coerced abstinence is not the same as good drug treatment," says Mr. Nadelmann.
The new policy has plenty of critics. Some believe a more lenient approach to drug use sends a dangerous message of tolerance to the nation's youths, and that this message is spreading. There was plenty to feed that anxiety in November, when voters in Nevada and Colorado approved use of marijuana for medical purposes, while those in Oregon and Utah set stricter requirements for asset forfeiture in drug cases.
Even some favoring drug reform say the California plan has inadequate supervision and monitoring provisions. What probation officer Jenkins worries most about is his effectiveness as his caseload rises. Probation officers across the state will be the primary managers of drug offenders, and many are worried that they will be swamped.
There are also concerns that California's treatment programs are not up to the task.
Members of the state Legislature have already established an oversight committee to consider more funding for treatment, probation functions, and drug testing.
For his part, Jenkins is taking a wait-and-see attitude, knowing from experience that both punishment and treatment have their limits. Reiterating what he thinks is the key to success for drug abusers, he taps his head and says, "you have to be ready here."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society