For the first time since the 1930s, Gallup has found that neither economic issues nor war tops its poll of public concerns. The number-one issue on America’s mind is drugs.

That’s not surprising. Colombia has exploded into a full-scale drug war. Crack peddlers, like an indestructible breed of cockroach, infest American streets. Prisons overflow with drug offenders.

On every front are urgent calls to confront the crisis. The problem is, most of the proposed solutions don’t deal with the root disease but only with the symptoms, and with these, not very effectively.

What happened in Florida is illustrative. Projections show that by year’s end, Florida will have 60,000 more convicted offenders than prison beds; 60 to 70 percent have drug histories.

Justice Fellowship worked with state leaders to develop urgently needed legislation that focused primarily on alternatives for nonviolent offenders and treatment centers for addicts. All was going well—until one senator uttered the fatal word: the drug package was “soft.” His rhetoric carried the day; the legislature voted $118 million for new prisons, and a paltry $700,000 for in-prison drug-treatment programs.

Then, just a few weeks later, a study of 254 Florida crack addicts showed just how futile that prison building boom will be.

In one year, these youngsters were responsible for 223,000 crimes—an average of 880 crimes per addict per year! The threat of prison was no deterrent; actually going to prison only stopped them from crime temporarily. There was nothing to break the cycle of addiction.

What is happening at the federal level is only slightly more encouraging. To his credit, President Bush’s $7.9 billion antidrug plan included $925 million for drug treatment. But at the heart of the President’s proposal were tougher sentences, drug testing, and $ 1.6 billion for new prisons for drug offenders—an 85 percent increase in federal prison space. Drug abuse is “a national menace,” said President Bush. “We need more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors.”

But Democrats on Capitol Hill were not to be outtough-talked. Charged liberal Sen. Joe Biden, “The President’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them—and enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”

A Drugged World View

Perhaps I can be forgiven for being slightly skeptical of such political sloganeering. In the early 1970s I wrote some of Richard Nixon’s most virulent antidrug and anticrime rhetoric. “Lock-em-up” lines had the same passion-rousing power then as they do when George Bush’s speechwriters pen them today. Tough talk sells.

But it doesn’t work. Sentencing drug addicts to prison does little to cure their habit. Addicts leave prison just as likely to commit new crimes as when they went in.

Is there any answer to this dilemma?

Yes. But it won’t be found in the standard political rhetoric. Real answers require patience, wisdom, and an honest look at the problem’s roots.

First, we must understand that our drug plague in America has little to do with supply: the opium fields and drug labs of Asia and South America. It has to do with demand.

The millions of drug addicts in America today are addicted first not to a chemical, but to an idea. They may not even be conscious of it. But our societal consensus has subtly sold a warped world view that distrusts absolutes, disavows transcendence, and disbelieves in God. What is left in that vacuum is a corresponding relativism, immediacy, and self.

This world view leads to one logical conclusion: If life has no externally determined meaning, one must find it in oneself—such as in vivid, personal experiences, like the dramatic highs of cocaine and crack.

Our only hope lies in filling the spiritual vacuum, in reasserting a view of life that embraces a transcendent God and values based beyond self. That means changing the hearts and minds of a people—painting, both in grand strokes on our national canvas and in individual lives as well, a fresh moral vision of God, man, and meaning.

The Treatment Option

Obviously this is too vast a subject for one brief column. But while we seek broad-scale cultural reformation, there is a second, equally tough challenge: How do we deal with the millions who have succumbed to the lie and are already addicts?

If the tough-talking politicians have their way, we’ll simply lock all these people up. But there is a better solution: community-based drug treatment.

No, I haven’t gone soft. Dangerous drug dealers must be locked up—for long terms. Let’s get tough where it counts.

But unless we break the country’s budget, we cannot build enough prison cells for every drug offender. The non-dangerous should be sentenced to treatment programs rather than to prison.

Some object, citing only 50 percent success rates in some programs. But that’s better by a long shot than the staggering recidivism rates if we send them all to prison. And I’ve seen programs, particularly those with a strong Christian emphasis, where the results are truly impressive.

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Happily, some opinion makers are beginning to see the merit of such an approach. The National Judicial College has launched a program to teach judges that locking up drug offenders isn’t always the answer, and how to recognize when one should be sentenced to treatment. “Neither the penitentiary nor probation by themselves are an adequate response to this country’s drug crime problems,” said one instructor. “The recidivism rate for treatment programs is not as high as if you send them to prison.… From that point of view, these types of programs are a tremendous success.”

The fact is, despite the glib political rhetoric, there are no easy, quick-fix answers. To deal with the drug plague means filling the void in modern life with a renewed moral vision. And it means digging drugs out by their roots—individual lives cured of addiction, one by one by one.

Daunting, yes. But it’s our only hope.

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