Last week, our first lady Michelle Obama took an important step in raising public awareness of a chronic health condition that affects 23 million Americans, with devastating consequences for them, their families, and communities. I’m talking about substance abuse—a problem for which only one in ten affected adults and only one in thirteen teenagers receive the treatment they need.
Speaking to reporters from American media outlets in Mexico City—the capital of a country wracked by drug-related violence—Mrs. Obama acknowledged that warning our kids to “just say no” isn’t enough to halt the spread of illicit drug use and trafficking.
“If young people don’t have an alternative in their lives, they’re going to choose drugs, they’re going to choose the drug trade,” she said. “My experience shows that young people will make different decisions if they have better opportunities.”
Mrs. Obama’s comments were dead on. We need to give kids the opportunities for success that they deserve—and this means changing the lopsided spending of federal and state dollars on the consequences of addiction, rather than on education, prevention, and treatment. According to the CASA report “Shoveling Up II,” in 2005, federal, state, and local spending as a result of substance abuse and addiction was $467.7 billion. Of this whopping figure, more than 95 percent of these taxpayer dollars went toward the medical, public safety, criminal justice, and other costs of addiction—with less than two percent allocated to treating and preventing it.
Among other products of this misguided strategy is a sprawling, overcrowded prison system. Of the 2.3 million inmates crowding America’s prisons and jails, 85 percent meet criteria for substance abuse or have a history of it. Illicit drugs are implicated in three quarters of all incarcerations. In 2005, federal, state, and local governments spent $74 billion on imprisonment, court proceedings, probation, and parole for adult and juvenile drug offenders. Not surprisingly, because less than one percent of this funding went to providing treatment, inmates with substance abuse problems were more likely to land in prison a second time.
If we want to end this vicious cycle for the next generation, we need to redirect public dollars so that fewer young people choose drugs in the first place. It is inmates who struggle with substance abuse who are most likely to have begun their criminal careers at an early age. For this reason, investment in education and prevention is crucial. Research has shown that a high quality early education can have a huge impact on a child’s success. One study of disadvantaged children found that participation in pre-k dramatically reduced juvenile and adult crime later in life, with a benefit cost-ratio of 16 to 1. Many states are recognizing that funding early education can lower prison costs down the line.
Of equal importance is ensuring that those who do get into trouble with drugs receive the help they need. Today, only 11 percent of all inmates with drug problems receive treatment. CASA researchers found that if our country provided treatment to every inmate who needed it—and just over ten percent stayed sober, crime free, and employed—we’d break even in a year.
I am pleased that the Office of National Drug Control Policy is aware of this need to re-think our nation’s drug strategy. And I’m especially grateful to Mrs. Obama for her willingness to engage in the public debate. As advocates for drug reform, we need more leaders like her to step up and speak out about this critical issue. Only then can we hope for meaningful change.
Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO, Phoenix House