More MS news articles for November 2000

Voters Getting Wise to the War on Drugs

By Judy Mann
Wednesday, November 15, 2000
The Washington Post

The tide is turning in the public's attitude toward the war on drugs. Successful initiatives in five states show growing support for sensible drug policies such as treatment and rehabilitation that turn addicts into useful members of society as opposed to costly incarceration that doesn't.

California, with the highest drug incarceration rate and the highest drug use rate in the country, is a bellwether state for social change. Its voters recently passed Proposition 36, the most important drug reform initiative so far, by 61 percent to 39 percent, or a margin of 2 million votes. The initiative allocates $120 million a year for five years toward setting up comprehensive and well-monitored drug treatment programs, backed up by job and literacy training and family counseling. A California legislative report estimated that this new approach would divert 24,000 nonviolent offenders and 12,000 parole violators into treatment programs each year-- instead of sending them to jail--saving taxpayers more than $200 million a year.

Nevada and Colorado voters passed initiatives to make marijuana legal for medical use. Patients with certain illnesses will be able to obtain credentials that protect them from prosecution for possessing or cultivating the plant for their own use. Six other states already make marijuana available to patients with cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis, among other diseases.

In Oregon and Utah, voters passed initiatives to curb abuses by law enforcement agencies in seizing and selling assets of people they suspect were involved in a drug crime. In both states, police departments have gotten bonanzas from forfeited assets. As a result of these initiatives, police and prosecutors will have to prove that property was involved in a drug crime before it can be seized. Proceeds from seized assets now will go toward public education or drug treatment, not to the police.

Efforts to support these initiatives were led by the Campaign for New Drug Policies, and the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, which is backed by financier George Soros. In Massachusetts, the two organizations backed an initiative that failed. It would have reformed the system of property seizure, but it also would have gone much further than the other initiatives to provide drug treatment to low-level drug dealers as an alternative to sending them to jail. It was opposed by every district attorney and every police chief, as well as the states' two biggest newspapers.

Another initiative would have legalized marijuana in Alaska. That effort, which the two organizations were not involved in, failed by 60 percent to 40 percent.

The campaign to reform drug laws has been effective. Backers have framed their arguments in terms of reducing harm caused by drugs, rejecting the harsh law-and-order zero-tolerance policies that have stuffed jails with nonviolent drug offenders. Ethan Nadelman, executive director of Lindesmith, argues that a drug policy's success ought to be judged on the rise or fall of such things as drug overdose deaths, the incidence of HIV/ AIDS attributable to dirty needles, spending on prisons, crime rates and suffering associated with drug use. He says drug reformers have had more success during the past year in state legislatures than in the past 10 or 15 years combined--with Hawaii legalizing medical use of marijuana, Vermont adopting an enlightened methadone treatment program, three states passing legislation making syringes available through pharmacies, as examples.

"We do see some significant transformation of opinion and sentiment," Nadelman says.

Under California's watershed Proposition 36, which will be the most watched reform, the first $60 million will be spent between January and June to set up treatment and rehabilitation programs. A statewide monitoring system will track how well they work. Instead of the usual skimpy funding that ensures rehabilitation programs will fall short, this effort has enough money to treat most offenders, if not all. Judges have the authority to send offenders into more restrictive and intense treatment if they are relapsing--and if that doesn't work, they can sentence them to prison.

Backers of these drug policy reforms will be working to ensure that they are effective, and they will be looking to export these initiatives to other states. The drug policy reform effort is creating unlikely allies. In Utah, for example, liberals backed the crackdown on property seizure abuses because they violate civil rights. Conservatives back the measure because it protects individual property rights. Arizona already had chosen treatment and rehabilitation over incarceration, and like Utah, it is one of our most conservative states.

Support for changing the country's approach to drug control is also coming from the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights organizations because of the racial disparities in the drug war. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have sent the black prison population soaring with low-level offenders. High-level dealers can snitch their way out of long terms by providing substantial assistance to prosecutors in rounding up members of their drug-dealing conspiracies. The low-level street dealers have no one to snitch on. They're doing the time.

Momentum for reform is gathering a head of steam now, certainly at the state level. Members of Congress need to start paying attention. Voters have signaled that they want drug laws reformed to protect civil rights and to promote public health. In this year's elections, solid majorities in five conservative and liberal western states said very clearly that they want smarter, safer, more effective and more constitutional policies. Sanity is threatening to make a comeback.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company