Pubdate: Tue, 28 Nov 2000
Source: Hendersonville Times-News (NC)
Copyright: 2000 Hendersonville Newspaper Corporation
Contact:  828-692-2319
Address: P.O. Box 490, Hendersonville, NC 28793
Author: Robert Sharpe
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Note: Robert Sharpe is program officer for the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy


To The Editor: Susan Hanley Lane's Nov. 20 column on the passage of
Proposition 36 in California, which will divert nonviolent drug offenders to
treatment instead of prison, was right on target.

In prioritizing approaches to drug abuse, she was right to put education and
treatment at the top of the list. The growing support for public health
approaches to substance abuse is long overdue. With violent crime rates
continuing along a downward trend, the drug war is the main reason the Land
of the Free now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

Putting Americans with substance abuse problems behind bars with hardened
criminals is a dangerous proposition. According to research published in
American Psychologist, about one-fourth of those initially imprisoned for
nonviolent crimes are sentenced for a second time for committing a violent

Whatever else it reflects, this pattern highlights the possibility that
prison serves to transmit violent habits and values rather than to reduce

The United States is making a big mistake by criminalizing illicit substance
abuse. Imagine if every alcoholic in America were denied treatment due to
lack of funds. Now take that one step further. Imagine if every alcoholic
were thrown in jail and given a permanent criminal record. 

How many lives would be destroyed? How many families torn apart and career
aspirations shattered? How many tax dollars would be wasted turning
potentially productive members of society into hardened criminals? 

It's time to rethink the failed drug war. The millions of Americans who
favor treating substance abuse as a public health issue are looking to
California to lead the way.

Robert Sharpe, Washington, D.C.
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