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Cronkite rallies for funding at Tucson drug treatment center

By Michael Lafleur
Arizona Daily Wildcat
November 23, 1998
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Ex-CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite is interviewed by former Sen. Dennis DeCancini at a benefit for Amity at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort's Grand Ballroom. Amity is a Tucson-based adult residential substance abuse treatment program that has been in existence since 1977, and which currently houses 75 people from the ages of 18 to 55.

Former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite advocated drug rehabilitation in Tucson Saturday to support a local substance abuse program.

During a mid-morning news conference for 30 Amity Circle Tree Ranch residents and reporters, Cronkite blamed politicians for placing too much emphasis on punishing drug addicts and underfunding treatment alternatives.

"There's a cowardice on the part of political leadership on facing many of our problems today," he said. "These people have the responsibility of leadership. If they're going to be leaders they have got to have the courage to understand that there has got to be a better way than imprisonment."

The ranch, often a last-resort drug abuse program, takes in patients who have failed numerous attempts at sobering up.

State Rep. Andy Nichols, also a University of Arizona family and community medicine professor, agreed with Cronkite that people need education and rehabilitation in prisons.

"I think there has been a belief that the more popular political position is to be punitive rather than rehabilitative," Nichols said. "The reality is most people who enter the criminal justice system eventually come out."

Cronkite, 82, said programs like Amity, which treat rather than punish drug addicts, are "heartening, for heaven sakes."

He became acquainted with Amity in 1995 while doing a special for the Discovery Channel entitled The Drug Dilemma: War or Peace?

"Ever since then I've been interested in the progress of Amity," he said.

The Amity drug rehabilitation program, started in 1977, accepts recovering drug addicts who have had difficulty sticking with other treatment programs. The 56-acre ranch houses 75 people ages 18 to 55 who receive counseling and perform specific jobs on the ranch.

Jim Rowland, former director of the California department of corrections, agreed with Amity's approach and would like to see it applied to the prison system.

"If you really want to be tough on crime and try to get people to change their lives while in prison, help to make them responsible citizens and pay taxes like the rest of us," Rowland said. "The ultimate punishment is paying taxes."

Rowland said there are two Amity outpatient facilities that serve the California penal system.

Although many Amity residents receive grants from the state-funded Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, funding is often cut after 90 days or less, said Robin Rettmer, Amity associate director.

He said 14 to 18 months is a more suitable time limit for the rehabilitation of recovering addicts who have had great difficulty kicking their habits.

"We've been in a position to have to let some people go when they're not ready," said Rettmer, who has been working at the ranch for 25 years.

Cronkite and Rettmer agreed that securing more drug-rehabilitation funding is a pressing issue.

"A much larger portion of the budget to fight the drug war should go toward this type of program," Cronkite said.

Cronkite's high-profile stature coupled with his interest in the program encouraged Amity to invite him, Rettmer said.

"We're always in need of money so we invited him," Rettmer said. "We figured we'd up the stakes this year."

Cronkite also made an appearance Saturday evening at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort for a fund-raising dinner to benefit Amity.

The price tag for a seat was $150 and those who wanted a chance to personally meet Cronkite paid another $100 for access to a private gathering prior to the dinner. Cronkite was paid a "minimal fee" for his services, Rettmer said.

Michael Lafleur can be reached via e-mail at Michael.Lafleur@wildcat.arizona.edu.