Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Don't Extinguish a Bright Hope for Drug Addicts!



September 15, 2006

Back in the summer, the House and Senate appropriations committees pronounced a death sentence on one of the most promising innovations in substance abuse treatment. The committees decided with minimal discussion to shut down the Access To Recovery program and transfer its $100 million or so of annual funding into the conventional federal drug treatment block grant. But their recommendation hasn't yet been carried out. The full House and Senate, when they vote on the Labor, HHS appropriations bill, can reverse this decision. And they should—for the sake of drug addicts, faith-based organizations, and effective policy.

The Access to Recovery program—ATR, first funded in 2004—has given additional drug treatment funding to states that added new treatment types and providers beyond their traditional list of clinical treatment services. To win the extra money, 14 states and one Indian tribe created voucher-based systems that include faith-based providers and services that supplement or substitute for clinical treatment. Because of the vouchers, addicts can choose the path that works best for them—conventional clinical, or something more, or something different. And because of the vouchers, that something different can include religiously transformative services.

Here is one of the vital innovations of ATR. Most of the time, the government picks the service provider, and because of that, if the provider is faith-based it has to keep activities like prayer and religious discipleship out of the service. But with vouchers, it is the addict, not the government, who picks the provider. The US Supreme Court says that, in that case, the service the government supports can include religion. In ATR, faith-based providers like Teen Challenge can offer spiritual help to addicts who want it, and don't have to sideline religion.

Opponents of the faith-based initiative who fret that the Bush administration is unconstitutionally allocating federal dollars to pay for religion should celebrate and support this court-validated voucher mechanism. The other critics of the initiative who, in sharp contrast, have protested because most funding requires religion to be set outside the government-supported services, ought to celebrate and support ATR because its design allows federal funds to support effective spiritual treatment methods.

Everyone concerned that addicts should get effective treatment should push for ATR to continue, not end. The program is only in its third year, and much of the time has been spent by officials to figure out how to institute vouchers, assess new kinds of services, persuade faith-based programs to participate, and overcome the conventional system's resistance to religion, new providers, and new kinds of services. Nevertheless, preliminary reports from the states show that many addicts have chosen the new varieties of treatment, many have picked faith-based providers, and for many, the path has led to good outcomes: they are off drugs, out of crime, and getting connected to a supportive network.

When the appropriations committees were making their funding decisions, defenders of the traditional system were out in full force, emphasizing the unmet demand for treatment and pleading for the ATR money to be added to the block grant. The committees agreed, pointing out that nothing in the block grant prevents states from designing their own voucher systems.

But neither is there anything in the block grant to prod states to get creative, diversify services, add in spiritual options, and give addicts choices. If Congress cares about better outcomes for the addicted, it will reverse the appropriations committees and fund ATR. Far better to use the money to pilot and prove a more effective way to help addicts—rather than simply to add the dollars to systems and services that have shown only marginal success.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”