A Chemistry Experiment

The Denver Drug Court tests a formula for reclaiming addicts.

Meyer says drug court's modest success in reducing recidivism can be improved upon as more is learned about what it takes to change drug addicts' behavior.

"There are a lot of things I would do differently now than when I was on the bench," he says. "I think we know more about assessment and drug testing, and we know more about the chemistry of the brain and why people have drug cravings."

Drug addicts require repeated treatment to finally kick their habits, says Meyer, noting that "most...national studies have indicated that treatment is most effective if it lasts at least a year." That said, he has also seen many addicts make great progress after going through a two-week "detox" program at Arapahoe House, one of the best-known treatment agencies, with sites throughout the metro area. "I saw remarkable changes in individuals from that fourteen-day program," he says.

Keeping a balance between treatment and punishment is crucial, says Adam Brickner, director of the Mayor's Office of Drug Strategy, which was formed in 2000 to coordinate drug policy here.

"There are meaningful sanctions. You do it to let people know their behavior is inappropriate," Brickner says. "You have to make the sting of the sanctions strong enough to impact their behavior."

But, he adds, the threat of punishment has to go hand in hand with affordable treatment for addicts: "Addiction is a chronic disease people need help controlling. It takes about 24 months to learn the behavior they need to learn. Addicts have relapses; it's not like taking aspirin for a headache. People think a drug addict goes to treatment for six weeks and they're cured, but it's an ongoing process. Look what people go through to quit smoking."

Rather than increase funding for much-needed drug treatment and rehabilitation, the state is now slashing it.

Colorado already ranks next to last in the nation in the amount of state funding it doles out for drug and alcohol treatment. According to a 2001 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, we spend less than neighboring states with far smaller populations, such as New Mexico and Wyoming. For instance, while Colorado spent $548,000 on prevention and treatment programs in 1998, New Mexico spent $11,005,000 and Wyoming spent $2,790,000. The NCASA estimated that for every $99 Colorado spends dealing with the consequences of drug addiction (child abuse, domestic violence, hospital admissions, incarceration, etc.), it earmarks just six cents for treatment. Furthermore, most of the money the state does distribute for treatment programs is actually federal funding.

The result of this tight-fistedness is a serious shortage of residential treatment slots and very little free or low-cost counseling.

"It's a severe detriment to comprehensive treatment in Colorado," says Slavia Lewis, executive director of the Mile High Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. "We can't give the best care to people when there isn't funding."

Lewis says her agency receives no state funds. People walking in the door from drug court are expected to pay for the classes and group discussions they must attend, and for many of them, coming up with the $25 fee is a hardship, especially if they can't find work.

"So many people are looking for work, and employers want to hire people without criminal records," says Lewis. "This makes it really hard to place people in jobs."

Without adequate funding, Lewis must also struggle to retain staff.

"In the substance-abuse arena, there is high turnover," she says. "Unfortunately, we do lose people to the for-profit world."

Colorado's economic slump has led to cutbacks in the already meager state funding for treatment. Recently, Governor Bill Owens eliminated the Tony Grampsas Youth Services Program, which provided funding for programs that helped at-risk minors, including those with drug addictions. One of the agencies hurt by those cuts is the Spot, a downtown Denver refuge for runaway teens.

"That was a very difficult decision for the governor," says his spokesman, Dan Hopkins. "Revenues to the state are down 15 percent. The money simply wasn't there for that program."

It's a pattern that's all too common, say advocates for rehab.

"In these hard economic times, one of the first things cut are treatment slots," says Brickner.

Owens has taken a strong stand against the idea of diverting drug offenders into treatment. In June the governor vetoed a bill sponsored by state senator Ken Gordon of Denver that would have reduced prison sentences for possession of less than a gram of certain drugs and would have used the savings for additional treatment programs ("The Shifting Drug War," November 22, 2001). That bill had passed the Republican-controlled house on a 61-4 vote, but Owens still killed it, saying he wouldn't approve a bill "that will put more criminals on our streets."

Even as the political debate continues over spending, drug and alcohol abuse is growing in the state. A recent study commissioned by the city found that Denver's drug-related death rate was 50 percent higher than the national average, while binge drinking, drug-related hospital emergencies and use of illicit drugs were also well above the norm. That study (called "On the Horizon" and issued by Brickner's office) also found that per capita alcohol consumption is rising in Colorado, along with alcohol-related hospitalization, which is 35 per 10,000 residents -- double the national average. The number of drug-related deaths in Denver has surged as well, going from 72 in 1996 to 123 in 2000.

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