Moral Hazard

Published in the Spring 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

This article is a sidebar of the "In Treatment" piece

-Carl Vogel

There's an element of morality laced throughout drug policy when it comes to women, attitudes and assumptions about motherhood, femininity, responsibility, and decorum. At times, these judgments run counter to policies and programs strictly built on research and logic.

"During the crack epidemic of the 1980s and '90s, there was a wave of concern whether a pregnant woman using crack was damaging the baby, and there was a lot of funding for research and programs for prenatal interventions," says SSA Professor Sydney Hans. "But the data have shown that when a woman uses cocaine or heroin, much of the risk to the child comes once he or she is born. The issue of how to help parents with children in the home hasn't gotten nearly the same attention."

During welfare reform, legislators on the left and right were concerned that many women would be unable to comply with work rules due to substance abuse problems, and they built a system that allowed states to do broad-based drug testing of welfare recipients. However, research by Associate Professor Harold Pollack and colleagues has shown that only about 20 percent of welfare recipients report any illicit drug use in the past year, with the majority of these drug users engaged in casual marijuana use.

Largely forgotten in the rush to identify millions of drug-using welfare mothers that simply didn't exist were serious questions about providing sufficient funding for substance abuse treatment and how to provide real support that can help women become ready for employment.

"Substance abuse might not be a highly prevalent problem for a lot of women on welfare. But it can be an indication that something else is not right. If you're a 34-year-old mom who's smoking marijuana in the afternoon, that's often a warning sign. We've done research that shows a correlation with that behavior and other mental health issues," Pollack says. "We should be more concerned and more careful and competent about helping women with those issues."