In an apparent attempt to cut into his presidential rivalís advantage as a perceived tough-on-crime candidate, Vice President Gore used the occasion of a speech to law enforcement officers in Atlanta to present a mixed bag of old and new policy proposals. Among these was a proposal to spend $500 million to help states drug test prisoners and parolees.
"I believe that we should demand that criminals get clean before they get out of jail," said Gore, adding, "if you want to stay out, you have to stay clean." Gore spoke too about the importance of breaking up prison drug rings.
Gore's proposed package would also include money for job training and placement for those who are returning to communities after incarceration. While the prospect of increased support services for those seeking a fresh start was music to the ears of many drug policy experts, there was also a sense among many that these steps beg some larger drug policy issues.
"In calling for increased drug testing of inmates, and calling for the dismantling of prison drug rings, the Vice President implicitly highlights the flaws in the larger policy of drug prohibition," Dr. Al Robison, President of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas told The Week Online. "After decades of enforcement at a cost of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, we don't even have drug-free prisons. That should give the public an idea of the folly of achieving a drug-free America. Prisoners live under the most secure environment that we can create. Thus, even if Americans were willing to give up all of their rights and freedoms, we would apparently still be faced with the reality of drugs in our midst. At what point, then, do we as a society stop heading down that road?"
The most promising of Gore's proposals, in the eyes of public health professionals, was his call for treatment on demand, though the Vice President offered no specifics on making that a reality.
"I believe we should build a country in which every single addict who finds the power to reach out and say, 'Now is the time I want help and I want treatment' gets an immediate response," he said.
Under the current Clinton/Gore policy, less than one-third of the federal anti-drug budget goes to treatment and prevention combined. According to the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 50% of non-alcohol related treatment needs are currently unmet nationwide.
Dr. Peter Beilenson of the Baltimore, Maryland Department of Health told The Week Online that the availability of treatment outside of the criminal justice system is a primary issue.
"There needs to be a significant increase in funding for treatment on request. We don't provide enough of that," said Dr. Beilenson. "There is a place, I believe, for some coerced treatment, especially when it occurs in lieu of incarceration. That being said, I don't believe that we should have to arrest people in order to provide them with treatment. Here in Baltimore, 54% of our young (18-29) Black males are in the criminal justice system. 85-90% of those people are there for nonviolent drug-related offenses. We must make voluntary-side treatment dollars available."
The full text of the Vice President's speech can be found at http://www.gore2000.org/speeches/sp_05022000_ga.html. See DRCNet's major Al Gore story of this January at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/gore.html.