The Gap in the Drug War


Whatever happened to the war on drugs? Millions of dollars have been spent on drug enforcement and education, but little money or attention has been directed toward curing the basic problem --drug abuse.

Last year more than 100,000 people were arrested for drug-related crimes in Los Angeles County, 10,000 of them under 18 years old. An alarming number of drug-addicted babies are born with birth defects each month. Yet necessary drug-abuse treatment remains out of reach for those who are uninsured or unemployed.

Television advertisements tout the merits of expensive 30-day drug-treatment programs (the maximum number of days allowed by most insurance plans). Some have country club-like atmospheres, others are in major hospital centers. But the high cost of these programs--generally $12,000 to $20,000 per month--precludes treatment for most uninsured families, regardless of income. They, along with countless probation referrals, vie for the county’s 742 in-patient beds.


Although not all drug addictions require inpatient treatment, a vast number do. An official at a private treatment center estimates that he turns away 200 uninsured applicants each month--typical of many private facilities, he says. Popular tax-slashing legislation several years ago, which many voters thought would cut fat out of government, forced the county’s in-patient drug-care program to eliminate 300 beds. Meanwhile, the major flow of drug traffic, which shifted from Florida to Southern California, began depositing an abundance of cocaine, or crack, in Los Angeles that is cheap and readily available.

Last month, despite budget constraints, the county Board of Supervisors approved start-up funding for a project that will add 40 beds to the juvenile drug-abuse program. The program currently has 142 beds available for an estimated 40,000 county drug-addicted teen-agers. This was a good step toward a proper solution to the drug-abuse problem.

Now, however, the supervisors must grapple with a $27-million reduction in next year’s county health-care budget in order to comply with Gov. George Deukmejian’s new state budget. One program that they may be forced to close is the 20-bed residential drug-abuse program at Rancho Los Amigos. Nonetheless, the $1.1-million state budget surplus will be returned to taxpayers in a rebate that, for most, will be relatively insignificant.

Until state and federal legislators recognize that drug treatment is as necessary as drug education and enforcement, there is little hope of winning the war on drugs. Instead, millions of dollars will continue to be poured into law enforcement, prisons, welfare and medical costs for those ensnarled by the drug epidemic. Although treatment is expensive, the long-term implications seem cost-effective. Until the demand for illegal drugs is eliminated, the supply will remain plentiful. The war goes on . . . .