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The good news from the war on drugs: There has been a downward trend of illicit drug use among women for the past 16 years.

The bad news? There still is substantial chemical abuse among women, especially ages 18 to 34."The health and financial impact of illicit drug abuse among women is staggering," said Susan L. Becker, director for the Division for State Assistance, U.S. Public Health Service. "Early and adequate substance abuse treatment will save billions of dollars in foster care, prison costs, Medicaid and other related costs such as treatment for AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis."

Becker spoke at the 43rd annual School on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependencies at the University of Utah last week.

She said the treatment of women ages 18 to 34 is vital, not only because these are the most common ages for women to abuse chemicals, but these also are the primary child-bearing years.

"There are proportionately fewer women in chemical abuse treatment programs than men," Becker said. "This has serious negative consequences for women and society as a whole."

Becker said there are copious obstacles hindering women from obtaining treatment. "Women fear being declared unfit mothers and having their children taken away," she said. "This causes many women to forego needed treatment."

She said the federal government also hinders women from seeking chemical abuse by terminating Medicaid or Medicare benefits for women and their children if they enter substance-abuse programs.

"I've personally been trying to get that problem changed since 1978," Becker said. "Certain aspects of federal bureaucracy are slow to move."

She said the rule doesn't make sense because failure to treat these women will cost society more money in the long run.

Another problem is that clinicians often feel women are more difficult to treat than men. There is a grain of truth to this notion, but there also are reasons.

"Seventy percent of women who have abused illicit drugs or alcohol have a history of sexual abuse prior to age 18," Becker said. "The impact of that is pervasively negative on self-esteem, the ability to trust others and self-disclosure - all of which are very important for successful treatment."

Becker said public fear has produced a political structure of government that constructs more prisons rather than creates chemical abuse treatment programs. She said since 1980, the number of men in prison has risen 112 percent, while the number of women in prison climbed 202 percent. Most women are jailed for relatively minor drug offenses.

"That's the primary reason the states are in such bad financial shape," she said. "They don't have the money to build bridges or pave roads because they're spending the money on building prisons."

She said the average cost to treat someone for substance abuse is $15,000. The average state cost to imprison someone is $20,000 to $50,000 in federal prisons.

"If you want to ruin public health," she said, "send everyone you can to prison, so when they get out, they can infect the population with AIDS, TB and other dangerous diseases."

As an example, Becker said that in 1980, syphilis infected 12.1 persons per thousand. Syphilis now infects 20.1 per thousand. She said syphilis is directly correlated to crack cocaine. AIDS is the fifth leading killer of women between 18 and 35 years.