Drug treatment law needs teeth

It would seem self-evident that if one-third of the nonviolent first-and-second-time drug offenders diverted into state-mandated rehabilitation programs since 2001 never even bother showing up for treatment — and three out of four never complete their rehab — something is very wrong and needs to be fixed.

A bill signed Wednesday by Gov. Schwarzenegger would put much-needed teeth into voter-approved Proposition 36 by enabling judges to jail recalcitrant offenders for two to 10 days if they drop out of treatment or test positive for drug use. Butopponents of SB 1137 immediately filed a lawsuit and won a temporary injunction to block any toughening of the drug treatment initiative.

Although the logic behind the lawsuit announced by plaintiff Drug Policy Alliance and its treatment-not-prison allies is debatable, their legal position seems solid. Under California law, statewide ballot initiatives such as Proposition 36 cannot be revised by legislation.

SB 1137 author Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, attempts to get around the predicted legal challenge by inserting an unprecedented bill provision calling for an “automatic ballot initiative” if the Drug Policy Alliance wins in court. Unfortunately this tactic opens the door for yet another legal challenge on grounds that the incoming 2007 Legislature cannot be ordered by the expired 2006 Legislature to place a measure onto the ballot.

So the outcome of all this is likely to be a long, costly and ultimately inconclusive courtroom battle. It would have been far better if Ducheny had simply sponsored a new voter referendum to revise Proposition 36 on this November’s ballot.

Despite the gaping holes in Proposition 36 enforcement, the program needs to be strengthened, not discontinued. The same University of California, Los Angeles study that uncovered the treatment program’s dismal dropout rate also found good news, pointing out that more than 60,000 drug users actually did graduate from rehabilitation and that keeping them out of prison saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Supporters of Proposition 36 blasted the new enforcement law as counterproductive, insisting that incarceration is not a deterrent to drug abuse.

Even the president of the California Public Defenders Association, Barry Melton, labeled this position “absurd,” noting that drug offenders are virtually certain to eventually serve longer prison terms if they fail to complete treatment, and for some the threat ofjail sanctions is necessary to keep them undergoing rehabilitation.

Proposition 36 was supposed to be about giving nonviolent drug users a fair chance to overcome their dependency without being imprisoned. Voters did not approve it in order to allow abusers a free pass to laugh at the treatment system.

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