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The Existence of Drug Courts Implicitly Acknowledgement Failed Public Policy: An Example From the “Grants to Expand Substance Abuse Treatment Capacity” Program

March 1st, 2013 · by Jake Seliger · No Comments

Occasionally, an RFP will inadvertently show how one part of the government recognizes and tries to mitigate the unfortunate effects that come from another part of the government.

We—naturally—have an example of this principle in action: readers of last week’s e-mail grant newsletter probably saw “Grants to Expand Substance Abuse Treatment Capacity In Adult, Juvenile, and Family Drug Courts,” which offers funding “to expand and/or enhance substance abuse treatment services in existing adult, juvenile, and family “problem solving” courts which use the treatment drug court model in order to provide alcohol and drug treatment.”

Creating “‘problem solving’ courts” is another way of saying that conventional drug prohibition has failed, and conventional courts are a poor means of dealing with drugs. According to SAMHSA, they don’t solve problems; they are at best neutral, or they actually create problems. If they solved problems, we wouldn’t need new courts to solve problems.

Conventional courts, in other words, exacerbate the negative societal outcomes that drug laws impose or encourage. Right now, we’ve got a self-reinforcing legal system, because becoming involved in that system will ruin your life because the system itself will ruin your life for you.

SAMHSA realizes this to some extent. By funding “Grants to Expand Substance Abuse Treatment Capacity In Adult, Juvenile, and Family Drug Courts,” a combination of SAMHSA staffers and Congress are implicitly admitting that drug prohibition doesn’t work, and the enforcement effort behind prohibition doesn’t work. This is fairly obvious to anyone involved in the system, or anyone who has seen the movie Traffic and read Daniel Okrent’s brilliant book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Or anyone who has read articles like “The global war on drugs has cost billions and taken countless lives — but achieved little. The scant results finally have politicians and experts joining calls for legalization.”

We, as a society, had the good sense to give up on Vietnam and now Afghanistan. Vietnam is now trying to join the global economy. The crazy system built around the “War on Drugs” helps no one except people employed as prison guards* and in other enforcement capacities. The money that we currently direct to prisons and police could be directed to treatment and prevention, while the black-market transactions that currently take place on street corners could take place in Rite-Aids and be taxed.

While I wouldn’t recommend that friends starting snorting coke every weekend, there are plenty of functional alcoholics and addicts out there. Alcoholism or drug abuse aren’t attractive lifestyles to me, but some people live them, and the second- and third-order effects of trying to stop those people are worse than the problems those people might cause by indulging in drugs or booze.

(Another note: there was $2,500,000 for this program in 2010 and almost $13,000,000 available now. This could be an example of random program funding drift, or it could say something about current federal priorities.)


* California’s guards are particularly pernicious, as “Fading are the peacemakers: One of California’s most powerful political forces may have peaked” and “Big Labor’s Lock ‘Em Up Mentality: How otherwise progressive unions stand in the way of a more humane correctional system” demonstrate. These problems are well-known to California policy wonks but too little known among everyone else.

Tags: Government · Grants · Links · SAMHSA