A Feb. 10 editorial incorrectly said that the Bush administration's proposed 2004 budget would cut federal funding for drug treatment. The proposed budget calls for a $271 million increase in drug treatment funding over the fiscal 2003 request. (Published 2/17/03)

WITH HIS LATEST faith-based initiative, President Bush has shrewdly fine-tuned his tactics. In his State of the Union address, the president proposed funding $600 million worth of vouchers that addicts could use in drug treatment programs, including religious ones. Vouchers are a method his more savvy supporters have advocated ever since the Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland school voucher program. The idea is that they are easily constitutional because the addict can choose freely between a secular drug treatment plan and a religious one, just as a parent can choose between the neighborhood public school and a Catholic one.

But what kind of "choice" does an addict really have? Drug treatment is usually presented as a condition of pretrial release or early parole, or as an alternative to jail time. Most states have long waiting lists for government-run drug treatment, which are only likely to grow after Mr. Bush's $400 million cut in drug treatment programs in his latest budget. Sometimes, church-run programs are the only option. In Wisconsin, a federal judge upheld a similar voucher program. But the decision was widely criticized for validating a false choice, because a church-run treatment program was the only long-term option in the state, and the parole officer had specifically recommended long-term treatment as a condition of release.

Drug treatment is not like schools or child care or soup kitchens, or many other services that religious institutions provide. With drug treatment, conversion is often the central goal, the only true measure of recovery. "This program is about more than being sober, it's about being saved," is the motto of Tonja Myles, the former addict who runs the Set Free Indeed ministry at the Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La., which Mr. Bush featured in his address. It's a sentiment Mr. Bush echoed, saying, "The miracle of recovery is possible, and it could be you."

Finally there is the issue of oversight. Some religious counselors resist traditional training in drug treatment because they think it puts too much emphasis on disease and too little on sin. In the past few years, a growing number of states have granted these religious providers an exemption from the usual education and training requirements. Ms. Myles, for example, is a former drug addict and prostitute with no formal training in drug treatment. And the Department of Health and Human Services amended its grant rules last month to say that federal drug treatment money will defer to state laws on oversight. The lack of it doesn't mean the programs don't work, but it does mean there's no easy way to monitor them. A pastor becomes a drug counselor just by saying so; that could mean she has opted to get a degree, that she is trained by life wisdom, as in Ms. Myles's case, or that she is wholly inexperienced; there's really no way of knowing. John J. DiIulio Jr., who ran Mr. Bush's faith-based office, always complained that the conversion-heavy programs tended to wildly exaggerate their success rates.

Slowly we are seeing Mr. Bush's new strategy for his faith-based initiative. Once, he tackled it head on, as the centerpiece of his compassionate conservatism. He did it by supporting, say, increased funding for faith-based groups or tax deductions for charitable contributions. Now he seems to have retreated to something more like a "reinventing government" strategy, using executive orders and rule changes. For him, this has the advantage of tackling bureaucratic hostility to faith-based groups. But for the nation, it has the great disadvantage of ducking debate on the thicket of central constitutional principles involved.