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Drugs and Crime

January 27, 1988

As many as seven of every 10 American men arrested for serious crimes test positive for drugs, according to a U.S. Justice Department survey of the nation's largest cities. That there is a link between drug use and criminal activity is not new. That it is so pervasive warrants major new federal funding and leadership for drug-treatment and -prevention programs.

As Congress measures it, President Reagan cut federal support for state and local drug-treatment programs by 40% during his first six years in office--even as the magnitude of the drug problem, especially cocaine abuse, increased dramatically. The federal cuts created months-long backlogs at clinics that were willing to treat people who had no health insurance, and also forced many other programs to close their doors.

Reagan went along when Congress passed a massive anti-drug bill in 1986, but he made no lasting commitment. The additional funding did not bring services back to the level provided before he took office. Moreover, the new money, doled out locally last summer, was regarded as a one-time-only allocation. Meanwhile, Reagan has again proposed deep cuts for drug-treatment and -prevention programs in his 1988 budget.

New federal cuts in the block grants allocated to the states will hurt local efforts. In Los Angeles, heroin addicts and intravenous drug users who seek treatment wait as long as six months to get into one of 686 beds provided for people who have no way of paying for expensive private treatment. And that includes new beds funded with the one-time-only federal money. The need is much, much greater.

In Los Angeles, drug users wait for as long as three months to get one of 740 slots in the county's methadone maintenance program. Although the total has risen by 78 slots, it is still well under the level achieved before the federal cuts and the havoc created by Proposition 13--the tax-cutting measure. Meanwhile, the need grows for drug treatment.

County experts estimate that 200,000 residents use cocaine, primarily crack--a cheap, smokable derivative of the coca leaf. Another 80,000 residents use intravenous drugs--a practice that can amount to a death sentence, especially with the spread of AIDS.

Although massive drug use does not automatically translate into massive criminal behavior, it is easy to explain the connection. Some drug users regularly commit crimes to get money to buy the illegal substances. And regular drug use can lead abusers into situations that are conducive to crime. Lessening the demand for illegal drugs will certainly help some lawbreakers.

The Justice Department's survey substantiates what cops on the street have known all along--that there is a substantial link between drugs and crime. The new evidence should persuade the President that the link will not be broken by just saying no. What it will take is Washington's saying yes to the financing of treatment programs that are far beyond the financial means of most cities and regions.

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