Drug offenders

Friday, September 15, 2000

Libertarian Ben Olson goes much farther. He not only admits openly to using marijuana, his sole campaign issue will be drug legalization, he indicates.

Their opinions may shock some, but they are becoming less and less rare, it seems.

We would argue against legalization of drugs on a moral basis as much as a practical one. The signal it would send to youth that abusing drugs is okay would be wrong. Also, legalizing drugs would do away with the muscle needed to get people into mandatory treatment programs when needed. Yet one point both candidates make cannot be argued.

What we are doing is not working. At all.

There are over 7,723 men and women in Iowa's prisons, according to a report from the Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, and over 1,600 of them are in for non-violent drug use. The number of drug-related prisoners has risen 108 percent since 1995!

Iowa police have done their jobs well. Yet drug problems seem to crop up faster than they can put them away. In Buena Vista County, the first meth lab that has been found to our knowledge has just been exposed. Still, it seems like the majority of drug stories that come across our desks are not meth cooking, crack or heroin, and most are not for peddling or trafficking in large quantities of drugs, but in use of marijuana.

We are not opposed to arresting people on drug possession - it is the law.

Yet we are beginning to wonder - how many of those 1,600 inmates, not to mention the taxpayers who foot the bill for them, might be better served by something other than wasting in a prison cell?

The Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil recently noted that a growing number of studies show that drug court programs requiring non-violent offenders to undergo treatment, rather than simply being locked away in a jail or prison, reduce drug arrests and the rates of repeat offenses among enrolled defendants.

Taxpayers benefit every time the drug cycle can be broken. It costs the public about $20,000 per year to house an individual in prison and about $2,500 to $4,500 annually per offender to operate a drug court.

Even using the higher of the two figures, the drug court costs taxpayers less than 25 percent of prison cost.

While the costs savings are important, the real benefit is to the individuals who are at a drug-related crossroads in their lives. Drug courts provide an opportunity for offenders to break their habits and become useful members of society, the Nonpareil editorializes.

We have viewed anything other than long prison sentences on drug offenses to be a sign of being soft on crime. Have we overlooked something in the process?

Some belong in prison - including all those who manufacture hard drugs, or sell them. If they sell to juveniles, we suggest, they belong in prison for life.

Yet we have tried to count on building and stuffing prisons as our sole answer to drug problems, and it has not worked. Have we given treatment an equal opportunity? Funding for efforts like the treatment programs in Storm Lake may indicate that we have not.