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Coordinated Approach Spurs Illegal Drug Use Decline in US - 2004-01-10

Health officials say illegal drug use by American teenagers has declined 11 percent in the past two years. They credit a coordinated approach by police and the courts, treatment centers and prevention programs.

Public health officials say seven million Americans need treatment for drug dependency, and millions of recovering addicts are undergoing treatment.

They include Nick Morgan of Los Angeles.

"Since I was 14 years old, I have been drinking, using PCP, shooting coke, heroine, methamphetamine, all stemming from Hollywood's punk rock scene back in the '80s," he said.

Mr. Morgan is now 37 and says he is clean and sober.

Many like him started using drugs as teenagers, so health workers say the current decline in drug use by this group is important.

U.S. anti-drug czar John Walters, who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, was in Los Angeles as part of a 25-city tour to publicize the successes of his program. He says the war on terrorism has diverted some attention from the fight against drug use, but says the fight against terrorism also offers a lesson.

"This is the need to identify groups of individuals whose activity is destructive to others and be able to both prevent them [from acting] and to apprehend them and bring them to justice," he said. "We have tools that allow us to do this, and we have an urgency to do this on a wider scale."

The official says the fight on the drug front requires cooperation among educators, police and the courts, and those who provide treatment for substance abusers.

In Los Angeles and other cities, specialized courts offer those arrested for drug crimes the option of treatment instead of jail time.

Twelve adult drug courts now operate in the city, and public defender Michael Judge serves on the program's oversight committee.

"We have blended a treatment model with some sanctioning power in order to achieve the most incredible, phenomenal results I have seen in 35 years in the criminal justice system with people who are addicted to drugs," he said.

He says 75 percent of the graduates of the program are not rearrested.

Judge Ana Maria Luna says the courts help users overcome their addictions by offering an incentive.

"The individual may be resistant to coming into treatment, but the way we have designed the program is, we actually have treatment counselors come out and meet with the person basically while they are in custody, right in the first 48 hours of their arrest, to talk to them about what the drug court program is, because it is intensive," she said. "You think of a boot camp for drug addicts, this is what it is."

The program involves group counseling and frequent drug testing. Those who complete the one-year course avoid prosecution and a possible drug conviction.

Some critics say drug laws target a victimless crime that harms only the user, but Dr. Jonathan Fielding, public health director for Los Angeles County, says drug use affects the lives of both addicts and those around them.

"About two-thirds of crimes are committed under the influence of drugs," he said. "If you look at lives whose trajectories are forever altered because of substance abuse, you realize that there are a lot of victims to these crimes. And in fact society is the victim in a large sense. Everybody is touched by this."

In a time of funding cuts for law enforcement and treatment, the task of curbing drug use is made more difficult, says Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. He says his department has lost $160 million in funds during the past two years, largely because of California's troubled finances. But like U.S. drug czar Walters, he sees progress in the fight against addiction.

"The miracles are the millions of people who have recovered from drugs," he said. "And we have to emphasize the positives. And these individuals are a resource to help others who are addicted to get away from their addictions. So let us look at the success stories."

For recovering addict Nick Morgan, success in conquering substance abuse followed arrests and jail time.

"I just decided to go get clean and change my life so I do not go back in prison," he said.

At the Tarzana Treatment Center in suburban Los Angeles, he says he has freed himself from drug use, with the help of fellow addicts and counselors.

"I do not have to use drugs and I can be clean and work on the disease, the addiction inside of me," Mr. Morgan said. "This treatment center works. I have never been able to do this. This is the first time I have really felt, wow, I have got a life ahead of me, man."

He has enrolled in a community college to study auto repair.

He must still cope with the aftermath of his years of addiction. He is HIV-positive and has hepatitis C, conditions with serious long-term consequences. He contracted both infections by sharing hypodermic needles with infected users. But he says that, free from drugs, he can cope with these medical problems and get on with his life.