Noble words, empty deeds

The war on drugs will fail so long as the victims don't get help.

Published June 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

With 150 world leaders committed to fighting the scourge of drugs, even a cynic might hope for some substantial result.

The recently concluded United Nations conference on drug control, attended by President Clinton and other leaders, was filled with resounding pledges of cooperation and determination. "With determined and relentless effort, we can turn the tide," Clinton told the gathering.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan assured delegates that historians will see this as a turning point in the history of drug control. The "new vision," said Annan, is driven by 52 million users of illegal drugs worldwide.

Darlene James is one of those 52 million. She lives in a cave alongside a freeway in San Francisco. A few weeks back, while U.N. leaders were planning their meeting, James was deciding she would not let her boyfriend inject "speed" into a vein in her neck.

"Methamphetamine's making me crazy," she says. "I need to stop." But that same week James was rejected for treatment for the fourth time -- this time because she did not have the appropriate paperwork.

James first walked into a drug rehab center more than six months ago and asked for help. But, although San Francisco has a policy of "treatment on demand" -- within 48 hours of an addict's decision to quit -- she has yet to be accepted into a program.

Her story is not unusual. Most addicts seeking rehab wait weeks or months. Michael Pagsolingan overdosed on heroin after waiting eight weeks to get into a program. Cost of emergency treatment for an overdose -- $1,450. Cost of one day in treatment -- $55.

At the United Nations, President Clinton proclaimed that the United States would spend $17 billion to combat the drug scourge. Yet only 35 percent of those funds will be directed at "demand reduction" -- i.e. treatment of addicts. The rest will go to attempting to control the flow of drugs.

These priorities seem wrongheaded, given the findings of a study sponsored by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. The study shows that $1 spent on treatment decreases drug use as much as $7 spent on domestic law enforcement, $11 on confiscating drugs at the border and $23 to stop drugs at their country of origin.

Funding in San Francisco's Treatment on Demand program is at 40 percent of needs. In Baltimore, there are 5,700 treatment slots for 60,000 addicts. In New York City, 60 percent of paroled drug abusers who don't get into treatment are back in jail within months, but new treatment programs are still awaiting funding.

In the United States as a whole, an estimated 4 to 6 million addicts who need treatment are not receiving any.

"We are determined to build a drug-free America," President Clinton told the U.N. special assembly. He spoke of a "virtual university" where anyone with access to a computer and modem could share knowledge and experience about substance abuse.

Darlene James, in her cave by the freeway, with no modem or computer, remains trapped in a chemical and bureaucratic nightmare. After being turned down four times, she beds down in her wet sleeping bag and says she is trying to keep from asking her boyfriend to inject her.

"These programs keep running me in littler and littler circles," she says.

James did not think President Clinton's fighting words or the U.N. conference marked the beginning of a new war against drugs.

By Lonny Shavelson

Lonny Shavelson is a physician in Berkeley, Calif., and author of "A Chosen Death."

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Bill Clinton Drugs United Nations