Comment: State’s drug abuse reforms should include prevention

Lives and money can be saved if efforts build on existing work to prevent drug abuse and addiction.

By Seth Dawson / For The Herald

As recently reported the Washingotn State Supreme Court’s Blake decision provides a welcome opportunity to reform our state’s strategy in addressing drug abuse. Unfortunately, the responsive legislation introduced to date and public discussions of the issues have omitted what ought to be the preferred approach in dealing with substance abuse: prevention.

Whether people advocate decriminalization and treatment or maintaining the criminalization of drug possession, everyone would probably agree it would be best if people did not abuse drugs and become addicted in the first place.

As much as treatment needs to be a key component in how we address drug abuse, and as much as we have always advocated enhanced treatment resources and increased access to those services, treatment is not the same as prevention and does not compare nearly as well:

• People can and often do die before ever getting into treatment.

• Before accepting and getting into treatment people often suffer physically, emotionally and financially for long periods of time. So do their families.

• Once engaged in treatment and recovery, people often relapse. This fact requires understanding, patience and multiple attempts at treatment. But it reintroduces the problems noted above.

• Successfully completing treatment means a life in recovery, which is difficult and is in many ways a more limited life than otherwise could be lived.

• Compared to prevention, treatment (and criminal justice services) are expensive.

If the war on drugs was a failure, so will be the surrender to rampant drug abuse coupled with efforts to get people into treatment; for the reasons stated above.

A fully humane and effective response to drug abuse would certainly include treatment but first and foremost healthy investments in prevention strategies, followed by a rigorous determination of which particular prevention efforts are effective and which are not. The relatively ineffective ones would be discontinued and the money reinvested in those with the most proven results.

Emphasizing prevention is not only more humane but significantly more cost effective.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has done extensive research on cost effective prevention programs. Its data shows that community-based prevention programs save Washington state an average of $67 for every dollar invested, school-based prevention programs save $31 for every dollar spent, and home and family prevention programs $5 per dollar invested.

Unfortunately, Washington state does not provide enough funding for prevention services at all schools and communities. Only 108 out of the 2,400 public schools in Washington state currently receive significant prevention services as part of the state funded Community Prevention and Wellness Initiative (CPWI). Prevention coalitions funded through CPWI have reduced youth substance abuse at a greater rate than similar communities without such coalitions. However there is a need for many more communities and schools to receive these services.

But for now it would be nice if public discussions about addressing drug abuse included prevention as a key — if not the key — strategy; and if Blake legislation included at least a statement of legislative intent to include prevention as a critical component of our newly evolving efforts to better address drug abuse.

Seth Dawson is a former Snohomish County prosecuting attorney and currently represents the Washington State Association for Substance Abuse & Violence Prevention.

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