America's Drug Wars
 Story | Photography | Read Others' Stories |

page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

A Radical Reform
"Why is it that people can't stop?" asks Mark Gold. "That's where science draws a blank. Where it says 'We need further study'—because not all people are the same."

Gold ran a hot line for cocaine addiction in the 1980s, 1-800-COCAINE. A hotline that still answers today. Gold is a professor at the University of Florida who studies addiction and the brain.

"What isn't in great dispute: For drugs to cause addiction, they change you're brain. 'Can you change it back?' is another question. If you think of it as a brain disease—this particular brain disease doesn't recover as previously thought. It definitely doesn't recover just because of detox. And it definitely doesn't recover because of 10, 20, 30 days of absence. It may require much more treatment than previously thought."

There is a revolution under way in an office in Arizona, the most radical reform in the War on Drugs in a quarter century—an approach to treatment unlike any other state.

In 1996 the predominatly Republican voters of Arizona, stopped the imprisonment of first- or second-time non-violent drug possessors if they chose treatment instead.

Barbara Zugger heads the treatment program. "We can either, as a society, put them in jail or prison, or try to put them on the straight and narrow and get them productive and happy in the community," she says. "I will give you the latter part of that one any day."

Clients pay for their own drug treatment here based on income. The average cost is about $1,200, paid in installments, for one year of mandatory treatment. The clients are given the choice the day they are arrested.

"It's the fear factor in the beginning, but so what?" says Zugger. "The criminal justice system, if used appropriately, it's a great carrot stick approach. You can't do it with just the carrot."

But there is a big carrot. "They can forget drug courts; they can forget attorneys; forget probation officers, fines, jails, forfeitures...," she says. They can forget the criminal justice system if they choose treatment.

"And you have to understand, everyone making these choices, one thing we want is to get out of jail," says one participant named Rodello. "So that sounds real good, even if it's for a day, you know."

If he makes it through the program, his record will be clean for a first-time arrest. "I'd been using for 32 years," he says. "I don't know why, to be honest, why I turned around. I knew that I would get out of jail if I did this."

So far, Rodello, in his mid 40s with shoulder-length brown hair, has stuck with it. He's here to give a urine sample—a requirement each week, along with one three-hour treatment session on Saturdays and two self-help meetings a week.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."

It's a choice that benefits Arizona. After two years, only eight percent of those who choose treatment were arrested again. In contrast, 23 percent of those who went through the criminal justice system were rearrested within two years.

In the last election, California voters passed Proposition 36, modeled on Arizona's treatment plan. California incarcerates more people for drug possession than any place else in the world—36,000 a year. Under the new law, first- and second-time offenders will be treated rather than jailed.

Most of California's political establishment lobbied against Proposition 36, but it passed with a comfortable majority. Twenty-four other states have an initiative process in the state constitutions. Plans are already underway to put the treatment model to a vote in the next elections.

Start Over >

©2018 American Public Media