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'Feeling Better is Snake Oil, Not Medicine' 


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Source: Portland Press Herald (ME)
Author: David Hench, Portland Press Herald Writer
Published: Tuesday, June 8, 2004
Copyright: 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Contact: [email protected]

Drug czar John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy, speaks to the annual meeting of the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors. Walters said he favors expanding access to drug treatment. 

States must treat substance abuse like a disease, expand access to treatment and prevent its spread among young people, the nation's drug czar told substance abuse officials in Portland on Monday.

"Playing with drugs when you're young is a disease, not a matter of individual choice," John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy, said in an address to the annual meeting of the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors.

Walters said the federal government will try to extend drug treatment to the roughly 100,000 people nationally who do not have access now. 

At the same time, the Bush administration wants to intervene in the cycle of experimentation and casual drug use by which many young people become drug dependent, Walters said. The administration favors random drug testing in schools as a way to help young people steer clear of drugs saying such efforts have worked in private industry, he said.

Maine officials oppose random drug testing for all students, believing it impinges on the civil rights of students who are required to attend school. 

No Maine public schools test all students, though some have random drug testing for students involved in extracurricular activities, said Kim Johnson, director of Maine's Office of Substance Abuse, which is hosting this week's national conference.

Maine treatment professionals hope the state will be selected to share in a new federal grant to expand drug treatment options.

Walters said the government is putting up $100 million for a grant program that would allow people with drug dependency in selected states to get vouchers to pay for treatment. The plan, which he hopes can double to $200 million next year, should help expand drug and alcohol treatment options by coaxing clinics and doctors to begin offering substance abuse services.

Maine has applied for $6 million in the first year to help obtain services for the 100 people a month who seek treatment but are turned away. The government will be awarding grants of up to $15 million.

Maine's drug problems are unusual compared to many states. The state was one of the first to experience a surge in the addiction to prescription opiates such as OxyContin. In 2003, 1,623 people were admitted to drug treatment for marijuana dependence, 1,007 for heroin dependence and 1,500 for dependence on other opiates, including prescription drugs.

Walters was sharply critical of efforts to legalize drugs and asked the substance abuse officials to help oppose such efforts.

"Neighborhoods, states and communities are better when we push back on this problem," he said. Treating marijuana like a "soft" drug ignores the fact that most pot is much more powerful today than it was in the 1970s, he said, and that twice as many people seek treatment for marijuana abuse as for cocaine.

Walters also criticized the medical use of marijuana, which is legal in Maine. Just because terminally ill patients and others feel better does not mean the practice has undergone the rigorous scrutiny necessary to qualify as a medical treatment, he said.

"Feeling better is the standard of snake oil, not medicine," he said.

Walters did praise the prescription monitoring program in Maine, one of 21 states that have electronic tracking of prescriptions to make sure patients are not visiting multiple doctors for extra pain medication or forging prescriptions.

Walters said his office plans to launch an ad campaign in the coming months to encourage peers and others to intervene if someone they know is using drugs. He also expects success in the near future in cracking down on Internet sales of drugs.

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