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Study Finds Drug Treatment Lowers Crime, Health Costs

By Sheryl Stolberg
Los Angeles Times

For every dollar spent on treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, California taxpayers reap $7 in savings, mostly due to reductions in crime and health care costs, a new statewide survey has found.

The cost-benefit analysis, billed as the most comprehensive ever conducted in the United States, also confirmed what smaller studies have already shown: Treatment is highly effective, regardless of the type of program or the drug, and success cuts across all racial and socioeconomic lines.

The study, financed by the state but conducted by an independent research institute, comes at a time of great public skepticism over the benefits of such social programs. There was intense debate over whether President Clinton's health care reform should cover treatment; ultimately, it was included.

"It's very important that there be a continuously developing data base to demonstrate to the American public the cost effectiveness of drug abuse treatment," said Alan Leshner director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an arm of the National Institutes of Health. "Most people don't believe treatment works, and they're wrong. That's why a study like this is so important."

The study, which officially will be released Monday by the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, estimated that $1.5 billion in savings resulted from the $209 million the state spent on treatment between Oct. 1991 and Sept. 1992.

In the year before treatment, the study found, those enrolled in drug abuse programs cost state taxpayers $3.1 billion. Of that, $2.4 billion - or 70 percent - was attributed to crime, including the cost of police protection, prosecution and incarceration. Victims of crimes committed by drug abusers, meanwhile, incurred $1.3 billion in medical costs, damaged or stolen property and lost work. Health care for drug abusers totaled $442 million.

Fifteen months after treatment, the cost of crimes tied to the group in treatment had dropped by $1 billion, the study said, accounting for the biggest chunk of savings.

The study based its conclusions on subjects' recollections of their behavior - including crimes they committed - before and after they had undergone treatment. But the authors say they took pains to avoid exaggerating savings, noting that previous research had shown such self-reporting to be "as valid as drug testing."

Leshner and other experts say they hope to use the $2 million study to persuade skeptical elected officials that they should continue to invest public money in drug abuse treatment. In this regard, the research may prove more a benefit to states other than California, which has already increased annual spending on treatment by nearly $120 million since the study was conducted.