By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
The United States spends $374 billion every year on drug interdiction and enforcement, but the problem only grows worse.
So when a drug treatment program seems to work, seems to save lives, and appears to save the public money, why wouldn’t it be expanded?
That’s the question the co-chairs of the state legislature’s Interim Judiciary Committee, Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, and Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, are asking. Because there is a program which is working in southeastern Kentucky.
Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education) has been working for 10 years in 32 southeastern Kentucky counties, founded by Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Fifth District, in 2003 after a Lexington Herald-Leader series called “Prescription for Pain.”
The program rests on the three legs of enforcement, treatment and education, Rogers told the Judiciary Committee here Friday. Its hotline averages 1,200 calls a month “from people on the brink of death, people contemplating suicide,” or from family members trying somehow to save a relative addicted to drugs.
UNITE offers vouchers for treatment – it’s provided more than 3,000 over 10 years – and while those vouchers don’t guarantee success every time, they’ve paid to turn around some lives dramatically. UNITE also has produced 4,100 drug arrests and helped fund drug courts and diversion programs.
Chad Webb of Pike County is 38, “and I’m an addict,” who started using drugs at 14, starting with alcohol and progressing to more and stronger drugs until at 30 he found himself “hopelessly hooked on prescription pain killers.”
He’s seen all three legs of the UNITE program up close.
Indicted and sentenced to three years behind bars, Webb really wasn’t interested in changing, but when he faced a second indictment and was offered the chance, he took it.
“I couldn’t have cared less about treatment,” Webb told the committee. “It was just better than jail.” But the longer he went through the UNITE program, “the more it made sense.”
He’s been clean since March of 2006, he’s married “the woman of my dreams and I have five awesome kids.”
“It’s been 2,741 days that I’ve been a good dad and husband,” Webb said, “2,741 days I’ve had my family and friends and 2,741 days I probably wouldn’t have had without treatment.”
Westerfield and Tilley said after the meeting they would “like to expand UNITE somehow” (to the rest of the state), especially the voucher program for treatment. But they don’t know how to pay for it.
Rogers – who chairs the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee and has previously directed federal funding to UNITE – said he’s had “informal discussions” with state policy makers “but the problem is it takes money.”
And Rogers is operating in a fiscally tight climate when House leaders are trying to cut spending, not expand it. Westerfield and Tilley face a similar situation in Frankfort.
Westerfield said he is looking for ways to redirect savings from a major reform of drug sentencing laws – House Bill 463 which Tilley helped sponsor two years ago. Part of that legislation requires savings to the corrections budget accrued from reduced prison populations be redirected to substance abuse programs.
Tilley and Westerfield also are looking at new provisions of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Beginning in January for the first time, Medicaid can be used to help pay for treatment programs.
Tilley said the public and policy makers must understand that funding treatment programs is simply “a wise investment with a good return.”
He said it costs a whole lot less to offer treatment than to house adults at a cost of $22,000 a year to taxpayers or $90,000 a year to house juveniles.
And instead of “warehousing” prisoners who are likely to go right back to their addictions upon release, treatment often saves lives and turns offenders into productive citizens such as Chad Webb.
Rogers told the committee that between the passage of HB 463, programs like UNITE and others, the number of drug overdose deaths actually went down last year in Kentucky for the first time in a decade.
He told of a young mother who “traded sex for drugs and stole from her family” and now leads “a perfectly respectable and productive life.”
So beyond saving money, Rogers said, “you’re saving lives” – and they might save more if they can find a way to pay for it.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.