A society free of illegal drugs comes with a price

December 18, 1997

Earlier this month, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend proposed an ambitious new plan to attack the drug trade from the demand side. It calls for drug-addicted people on parole and probation to be urine-tested twice a week, with a series of escalating sanctions kicking in after every "positive" test.

It's an intriguing idea for two reasons. Some years ago I wrote a column about how drug abuse was eroding personal freedom and finished the piece by saying that unless law-enforcement officials could find another way to stamp out the trade, eventually we would all have to pee in a cup before picking up each week's paycheck.

This program doesn't go quite that far, but it will require a great deal of effort. That's because this is less a program than a new way of life for those who'll be undergoing tests, and for those who supervise probationers and parolees.


Those who've been convicted of using drugs would be urine-tested twice a week, with those undergoing tests (to save a bit of space, let's refer to them probationers, although some of them will be parolees) paying for the tests themselves, on a sliding scale.

This really won't be a major financial problem, according to Adam Gelb, the lieutenant governor's policy director, who says that in Baltimore City, it now costs the state 65 cents for each drug the tests covers. If, for example, you're testing for marijuana, cocaine and heroin, testing would cost the offender $1.95 twice per week.

That twice-a-week schedule would continue for three months, Gelb said. Assuming the probationer tests "clean," testing would drop to once a week for the second three months. Assuming those tests come up clean, the probationer would be tested only on a random basis thereafter.

But what if the offender's test comes up dirty?

Then the sanctions kick in. But what those sanctions are will be up to the local jurisdiction, according to Gelb, who says that state officials must take into account a region's desires and resources. If citizens want the program to be unrelentingly tough, it can be, but not every county will have the jail space to give offenders two days in the slammer for failing a test, as one proposed sanction schedule suggests.

The most lenient sanction would require a probationer who failed a drug test to sit in court for three days, watching trials, presumably to put the fear of the law back into them. A second violation might require so many hours of community service, while failing a third and fourth drug test might bring either home detention or jail time. The final failed test would bring the probationer back to court on a violation of probation charge.

This sort of monitoring is now possible, state officials say, because new drug tests make it possible to get results back in a day's time. But this program will still increase the state's costs, for a couple of reasons.

The local office of the Department of Parole and Probation told me the department now does about 100 to 120 tests a month, a number they expect to increase dramatically. Though Gelb says the state expects to get some sort of volume discount when the number of test increases, there'll still be a need to keep more data on each person tested.

As for those who are ordered to show up to watch trials, the state won't take their word that they did so. They'll need to check in with someone, who will file reports, daily and monthly, on who came and who didn't.

And for those probationers who choose to skip court or their drug tests, there'll be a need for more enforcement action, if only because there will be more people in the system. On the plus side, it should cut down on the number of people coming to court, since the sanctions will be meted out by someone who's not a judge. But be assured that what the court saves, the system will spend elsewhere.

This is not an argument against this program. On the contrary. For many years, the criminal justice system has concentrated on busting dealers, only to see a new one step up for every one they take down. If those dealers can be deprived of their customers, they may decide to go into another (lawful) line of work.

What I am saying is that if we want a society free of illegal drugs, we need to be willing to pay the price, because no matter what anyone tells you, it's not going to be free.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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