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Want Addicts Cured, Not Jailed
WASHINGTON - Research sponsored by a group of the nation's leading doctors concludes that drug addiction is a chronic illness that can be treated as readily as hypertension, diabetes and asthma.
The research also shows that treatment is a better and cheaper anti-crime measure than prison. Yet a separate study in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association ( JAMA ) reports that the public prefers jailing drug offenders to treating them.
The doctors' research, based on an analysis of more than 600 studies, was commissioned by Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy, a new group that wants to tip public opinion toward treatment and away from prisons.
"Incarceration reduces drug use only temporarily and at great expense," the University of Pennsylvania's Thomas McLellan, lead author of one of the studies, said Tuesday.
For instance, he said, spending $2,800 to $9,000 on drug treatment can save $19,000 in crime-related costs. Imprisoning one drug abuser costs about $25,900 a year.
The White House office of drug policy on Tuesday endorsed the doctors' approach.
Heading the 37-member doctors group is June Osborn, former chair of the National Commission on AIDS. It includes David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; Louis Sullivan, President Bush's secretary of Health and Human Services; and the editors of leading medical journals.
Osborn said the evidence is unequivocal that drug abuse is an illness. Although addicts bear responsibility for their plight, she said, so do people with heart disease who smoke and diabetics who eat poorly. "We were telling people to 'just say no,' when addiction is a biological event."
McLellan cited evidence from studies of twins, the best source of information on inheritance, that shows the risk of inheriting a vulnerability to addiction is roughly the same as the risk of inheriting asthma or diabetes.
Other studies show that addictive drugs alter the wiring of the brain, making it harder for some people to stop taking them once they've started. Ninety-five percent of youths try drugs or alcohol at some point, McLellan noted.
The studies show that drug abusers comply with abstinence-oriented treatment about as well as people with recognized chronic illnesses stick with their therapy.
Sue Rusche of the anti-drug parents group National Families in Action in Atlanta endorses the notion that drug abusers should be treated. She says, however, that lawbreakers should be punished.
The study in
JAMA shows that her opinion is widely held. The analysis of opinion surveys
by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that 78% of
Americans view the nation's "war on drugs" as a failure, yet
they favor "more severe penalties for the possession and sale of
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