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Drug Abuse <i> Is</i> in Our Backyards : The Reaction in Lake View Terrace Sabotages the Fight

<i> Mitchell S. Rosenthal is a psychiatrist and president of the Phoenix House Foundation, which provides services to prevent and treat drug abuse in California and New York</i>

America isn’t winning the war against drugs because the nation has the same problem its drug abusers do. Addicts aren’t only hooked on drugs, they’re hooked on denial, too. And so are we. Addicts deny dependency. We deny responsibility.

We want to battle drugs at the border and not at home. We’d rather pressure Latin Americans to stop producing drugs than pressure our fellow Americans to stop using them. And, while we believe in treatment for drug abusers, we’d like it kept far away and out of sight.

“Not in my backyard” (the NIMBY reaction) is close to a conditioned community response to drug treatment centers these days. So there’s nothing unique about the situation in the San Fernando Valley community of Lake View Terrace, where some local homeowners are fighting to keep a drug rehabilitation center from opening, in spite of a city zoning administrator’s decision permitting the center to open. What makes this conflict newsworthy is the name of the particular facility--the Nancy Reagan Center.

Center opponents have cast themselves as embattled homesteaders, fighting for self-determination against Mrs. Reagan and Phoenix House, the national nonprofit organization proposing the center. They see themselves as a band of local Davids holding a gang of Goliaths at bay, protecting the peace, safety and property values of Lake View Terrace.

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But this view of the dispute, which colors much news media coverage, obscures harsher realities. It conceals the true nature of the opposition, the drug problems of Lake View Terrace itself and the pressing need for drug treatment in Greater Los Angeles. It ignores the victims of the controversy--most of them teen-agers--who would be denied care while the center is kept from opening. And it cloaks in civic virtue the kind of denial and indifference that has allowed drug abuse to take root and flourish in this country.

I have been fighting drug abuse for more than a quarter of a century, and I know that the most difficult enemies to overcome are not drugs themselves or drug traffickers. Public attitudes are the toughest opponents--tolerance for drug use, ambivalance about drug laws and denial of drug problems. Communities, like families, are too often reluctant to recognize and confront home-grown drug problems and more willing to accept danger and loss than responsibility.

While communities throughout the country have managed to keep drug treatment centers out, they have been less than successful in barring drug dealers. In Los Angeles, the situation is critical. The Drug Enforcement Administration, which seized 15 tons of cocaine here recently, has labeled the city “the cocaine consumption capital of the country,” and cocaine deaths in Los Angeles have risen to more than 800 in 1987, from 176 in 1984.

Children are among the chief victims--and not just the more than 2,500 drug-abusing runaways on the streets of Hollywood. All children are at risk. But only a handful of youngsters are getting the kind of long-term residential treatment many of them need to overcome dependency and the problems that are at the root of drug abuse. According the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, only 93 teens in Los Angeles County now get publicly funded long-term rehabilitation. And there is no other affordable, long-term care for adolescents.

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But such care is just what Phoenix House will provide at the Nancy Reagan Center--and in a community with its own drug problems. Last fall four persons were killed in a drug shoot-out only blocks from the proposed center site, and authorities seized a Lake View Terrace “crack house” earlier this year.

Yet, to opponents of the center, drugs aren’t the problem, Phoenix House is. The opposition exists even though there has not been a single incident that would justify concern for community security during the 22 years Phoenix House has operated more than two dozen anti-drug facilities. Indeed, the presence of Phoenix House facilities has invariably reduced local drug traffic and crime. Local property values, unaffected by the presence of Phoenix House facilities, have reflected areawide trends, rising sharply, for example, in areas like Manhattan’s West Side.

Nevertheless, opponents are determined to block city approval of the center. They threaten to hold up the process for as long as possible. But each day of delay means one less day of treatment for the 150 teen-agers and 60 adults the center will serve. By denying care to the victims of drug addiction--the most vicious problem threatening Los Angeles--they make all Angelenos pay a harsh price for their obstructionism.

What’s going on in Lake View Terrace isn’t a David-and-Goliath confrontation or a battle over self-determination. It’s a manifestation of social irresponsibility and the kind of stubborn self-interest that makes drug abuse so difficult to overcome everywhere in America.

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Our nation cannot successfully fight drugs while we have tolerance for drug use or misguided sympathy for those who abet the spread of drug abuse by denying the problem or delaying the solution. The Lake View Terrace dispute is everyone’s fight. And it is newsworthy not because Mrs. Reagan’s Center is involved but because it so clearly shows how the NIMBY reaction sabotages the war against drugs.


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