Report: Vets need consideration in drug cases

California is doing more than many states, yet perhaps not yet enough, to deal with veterans returning from war with disorders and injuries that lead to drug abuse, according to a national organization’s new policy brief.

The Drug Policy Alliance’s brief says as thousands of troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries and other maladies, many could end up in trouble with the law, especially for nonviolent drug offenses. The brief says that in 2004, about 140,000 veterans were in state and federal prisons with tens of thousands more in county jails, many for crimes related to substance abuse.

The brief recommends that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense adopt overdose prevention programs and policies targeting veterans and service members who misuse alcohol and other drugs, or who take prescription medications, especially certain narcotic painkillers.

It also calls for veteran treatment programs to expand access to medication-assisted therapies like methadone and buprenorphine, which it says are the most effective means of treating opioid dependence. And state and federal governments should modify sentencing laws and improve court-ordered drug diversion programs in order to better treat — rather than lock up — veterans who commit nonviolent drug-related crimes, the brief says.

On that latter suggestion, California is making some headway, the report says:

A California law provides that veterans who suffer from PTSD, substance abuse or psychological problems as a result of their service in combat and who commit certain nonviolent offenses may be ordered into a local, state, federal or private nonprofit treatment program instead of jail or prison. The law, however, is not widely used; many defense attorneys are not even aware of its impact for their clients, and it does not automatically apply to veteran defendants. Furthermore, the law only applies to lesser, probation-eligible offenses, so many veterans do not make use of it, choosing standard probation instead.


Legislation now in the California Assembly, Assembly Bill 674, would provide for diversion of psychologically wounded veterans to therapy instead of jail or prison, and would drop charges upon completion of therapy, for probation-eligible offenses. Drug testing results could only be used for treatment purposes, not as the basis of a new criminal charge. The defendant would not have to plead guilty and would emerge with no criminal record.

Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee Chairwoman Mary Salas, D-Chula Vista, introduced AB 674 in February but asked in April that its Public Safety Committee hearing be cancelled. Salas will chair a Veterans Affairs Committee hearing this Thursday morning, Nov. 5, in San Diego on veterans’ courts and alternative sentencing.

“Increasing numbers of Iraq and Afghan War veterans are returning home with psychological injuries. Many of them are going untreated and, some are encountering problems with the law,” she said in her news release announcing the hearing. “Our country has a duty to our most troubled veterans. We must recognize that these veterans’ psychological injuries were sustained on our society’s behalf. We need to consider if their injuries should be taken into account in the administration of justice. Ensuring these young men and women receive the care they need will also enhance public safety in the long run.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.