Stanton deftly analyzes the likely impact of the latest treatment-in-place-of-prison initiatives — Proposition 36 on the California ballot and the adminstrative decree by the chief judge of New York that all misdemeanant "addicts" will be treated.

Further Reading


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, 8 August 2000

The Drug Reform Movement Is Doing the Wrong Thing

Stanton Peele


The California ballot initiative (Proposition 36), along with the New York state judicial one (the Judge Kaye administrative order), supported by the drug reform movement, will have exactly the opposite impact from that sought by drug reformers. These initiatives involve the state — and particularly judicial sanctions — in individual drug use, with the added horror that users will be forced to follow religiously-dictated abstinence programs and to declare themselves clinically ill. The drug policy reform movement is doing exactly the wrong thing in supporting these initiatives. Note the following:

  1. To a large extent, such policies (compelling low-level users into religiously-based treatment programs) are already in force in California and New York.
  2. The primary impact off such programs — which generally involve those apprehended for drug and drug paraphernalia possession — will be on casual and recreational drug users.
  3. Since such individuals are already not sentenced to prison (the New York order concerns only misdemeanants and not those covered by the Rockefeller laws), the initiatives will not reduce prison populations, but will threaten more people with imprisonment.
  4. Although courts in both California and New York (including New York's highest court) hold that the state cannot compel people to attend 12-step-based programs since they are indubitably religiously based, the treatment into which drug users will be mandated will almost universally be 12-step-based.
  5. In order to meet the requirements of such programs, individuals must declare themselves powerless over their substance use, declare their dedication to a high power, and forswear all alcohol and drug use.
  6. Those who fail to do so will be considered noncompliant with a court order, and thus be subject to, in California, "tough penalties for people who flounder in or flout drug treatment. . . .includ[ing] sentences of one to three years in prison or county jail" (Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2000).

Although the goal is a more humane approach to dealing with drug users, since most drug users are not addicts, mandated treatment becomes a punishment, and what's more, a punishment that intrudes into the very inner recesses of a person's life. Consider a young person caught with marijuana. In many jurisdictions, he or she might receive a pretrial diversion assignment. In New Jersey, the young person may then be drug tested, but after a year, the entire incident is erased. If, instead, he or she was assigned to treatment, that treatment could never be erased (and to deny drug treatment could in itself be grounds for dismissal from a job or university or the basis of a criminal charge).

This hypothetical young person, sentenced to treatment, would then be required to aver that he or she was powerless over his or her drug use, promise to abstain forever, and swear allegiance to a higher power. All for being caught in an adolescent-typical (one might almost say "appropriate") behavior, behavior that would now not only be criminalized, but medicalized as a disease with the threat of judicial sanctions to support the diagnosis and treatment. If the youth should demur from the diagnosis, or the need to abstain, he or she then stands the chance to be engaged in a conflict that can impact him or her forever (for example, it can be raised if the person ever faces a child custody dispute as a parent).

The same dangers hold in most places (not excluding California) for medical marijuana users. One such individual wrote me of his living hell attending support groups mandated by his employee assistance program.

In these ways, the drug reform movement is working to create a reality worse than the current situation.