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FOLLOW DOCTORS' PRESCRIPTION FOR DRUG USERS

Police have long advocated focusing the drug war more on treatment and prevention rather than simply locking up the "enemy," who will continue providing a market for dealers as soon as they're released.

Now the nation's doctors are on the same page. The Physician Leadership on Drug Policy -- a bipartisan group of doctors and health experts from the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations -- is advocating that drug addiction be looked at as a treatable illness, not just a crime.

Such sentiment runs counter to the public perception that the best way to stop drug use is to punish the users. And it runs counter to the prevailing political thought, which responds to that public mood.

But if the average American would start listening to his doctor, a more thoughtful -- and successful -- national drug policy might emerge.

Taxpayers need to be informed that it costs an average of $25,900 to jail an addict for a year, but only $6,800 for a year in a long-term residential treatment program and even less for outpatient treatment. Once they know that, they might change their minds about the efficacy of incarceration for non-violent substance abusers.

Granted, many of the nation's 14 million alcoholics and 6.7 million drug addicts relapse after treatment. But the doctors put that problem in perspective with figures showing that substance-abuse treatment is no less effective than other forms of therapy. For instance, they found that one-year relapse rates for addicts and for sufferers of other chronic diseases are all about 50 percent.

Compliance with treatment regimens is similar too. For instance, fewer than half of diabetics and fewer than 30 percent of asthma and hypertension patients adhere to their doctors' recommendations. That compares with fewer than 40 percent of alcohol or drug abusers who stick with their treatment plans.

Still, the public has little sympathy for accepting substance abuse as an illness, not just a crime. One reason is the notion that addicts choose their vice. But the doctors counter with evidence that there is a genetic component to addiction, just as there is with obesity and some other behaviors long blamed solely on "moral weakness."

It's also clear that many other illnesses -- such as high blood pressure and heart disease -- are just as "voluntary" in the sense that many victims exacerbate their ailments by choosing unhealthy lifestyles.

None of that is to suggest throwing open the jail doors or removing society's condemnation of substance abuse. The crime and social destruction that addicts directly or indirectly cause necessitate a criminal-justice approach to much of the problem.

But that approach should focus primarily on dealers and repeat offenders. And it should be balanced by more emphasis on reaching the 85 percent of addicts who don't get treatment, in large part because of a severe shortage of programs. Such an approach could save tax dollars while freeing non-violent users from the grip of drugs and helping to put their suppliers out of business.

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