Baja AG proposes using drug courts to fight crime

Debate beginning on an alternative to prison

TIJUANA – The state Attorney General is taking the initiative to drive public debate on a revolutionary concept: creating drug courts.

For the first time, the Courts for the Treatment of Addictions, as they would be called, would obligate the state judicial system to see drug addiction as a health problem and not solely as a criminal act.

According to experts from California and the Mexican state of Nuevo León, where these programs already exist, the court would handle cases of people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol and had committed a less serious crime, such as theft.

There are currently 2,300 drug courts in the United States, some 207 in California alone, 46 of them for minors. Several countries in Europe also have them, as does Chile.

"We want to take these models and present them as an alternative to the problem we have in Baja California. We want to stop criminalizing all crimes," said state Attorney General Rommel Moreno, who presided over a forum on the subject last week at a Tijuana hotel.

As a way to attack street-level drug dealing, Mexico's Congress has decreed that each state take over prosecution of those cases starting next year. This small-scale drug dealing is currently a federal crime.

Moreno is proposing that Baja California create drug courts in response to that mandate. He explained that the first of these courts would handle adolescent addicts.

Drug abuse is a severe problem in the state.

Baja California has the most methamphetamine users in Mexico, the second most cocaine users, and third most marijuana users, according to national health and criminal justice studies.

What's more, residents in the state, particularly in parts of Tijuana, are exposed to violence committed by drug traffickers, a high crime rate and people who are under the influence of some drug.

According to a study conducted by the state's psychiatry division, 106,000 students statewide in kindergarten to high school presented risk factors for becoming addicts (disintegrated families and or proximity to drug dealers).

Jesús Salazar, the director of mental health and addictions in Nuevo León, said drug courts are a public policy that breaks the cycle of drugs and crime.

Salazar said 1,678,087 property crimes were committed in Mexico in 2009, according to National System of Public Safety, 60 per cent of them by abusers of drugs or alcohol.

The drug court decides if a person convicted of such a crime should go to prison or have a chance at rehabilitation, he said.

If rehabilitation is chosen, the convict serves an 18-month period of rehabilitation, managed by the State Health Department and supervised by a judge on a weekly basis. If he doesn't finish the rehab, he will be sent to prison, Salazar said.

"Some 80 to 90 per cent of those who go to a rehab center re-offend because they don't finish the program," he said. "The drug court makes the addict finish his rehabilitation and that's why it's harder to relapse."

The debate about launching drug courts pits two contrasting concepts. On the one hand, Mexico's model of justice views the abuse of drugs as the anti-social behavior of criminals. On the other hand, medical professionals view addiction as a disease.

"Prison as the only choice has not been effective to break the cycle of addiction," said Salazar.

Fort the implementation of a pilot program of drug courts in 2009, Nuevo León did not require new courts or other facilities. However, it did require the state to take charge of rehabilitation and the federal government to provide more resources for this program.

In California, addicts must complete a minimum 12-month program of comprehensive drug treatment and counseling, submit to random drug tests and make regular appearances before a judge.

Alfredo Villalba, a specialist in the treatment in addictions in San Diego County who works in drug courts, also spoke. He said that in California, studies show that drug courts save a minimum of $18 million per year.

The forum also included a group of students from a middle school in the Altiplano neighborhood, in the city's overcrowded, troubled east side. They said they have few recreational opportunities in their barrio and it's easy to sell and use drugs there.

One of the students did not hesitate to speak. "We have few options to avoid drugs."

Omar.millan@sandiegored.com

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