Some legislators are penny-wise, pound-foolish

Letter to the editor

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican, seems to be operating under a misapprehension about the purely economic value of treating substance abuse. ("Funds cut for substance abuse programs," May 14).

It sounds like Hawker agrees, in principle, to alleviating the recognizable suffering of the horrors of substance abuse, but objects to funding these programs at too high a level because "the brutal political reality is every penny that we spend on these programs comes from some Alaskan's pocket."

This semester I learned from a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Peter J. Cohen (M.D., J.D.), that many otherwise educated people have similar misapprehensions. Although Mr. Hawker is correct that every penny spent fighting substance abuse can be considered as being taken from the pocket of some Alaskan, the proper question (for a purely economically minded person who cares little about the value of human suffering) is "what kind of rewards come from treatment programs?" For example, what if scientific reports show these programs (many of which admittedly treat drug addictions more like diabetes than smallpox) actually save taxpayers' money?

According to a National Institutes of Medicine (NIM) report on heroin and cocaine treatment programs: "The result is unambiguous: Every dollar invested in treatment yields two and up to four dollars, and sometimes more, in societal benefits."

Other legislators, such as Rep. Jim Holm, a Fairbanks Republican, might still say, "but we should teach people with addictions to take personal responsibility for their disease." So what are the costs for the Holm approach to not treat addiction at all? The 1995 NIM report indicated that untreated addiction costs $43,200. How about incarceration? It costs $39,600. The costs of various treatment options: $12,467, $3,500 and $2,722.

An investigation of the costs and benefits of these treatment programs will uncover the brutal reality that every penny we fail to spend on these programs not only results in further human misery but in another two pennies coming from some Alaskan's pocket. I'm a young Alaskan. I would like to both keep my two pennies as well as alleviate people suffering from a disease. So please, legislators, do some investigation before making short-term budget cuts that will have long-term negative repercussions.

Aaron M. Clemens


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