Chicago Tribune
November 20, 2000

Voters Clearly Punched 'No' To War on Drugs

by Salim Muwakkil

The results of the presidential vote may be ambiguous, but one clear result of the Nov. 7 election was the electorate's fading allegiance to the nation's war on drugs. There were drug-policy issues on the ballots of seven states during this election cycle, and in five of those states voters chose anti-war policies.

That shouldn't be surprising; the drug war has been a colossal failure. Rather than curb drug abuse, these disastrous policies have fueled a murderous underground economy, corroded the civil liberties of all U.S. citizens and transformed the world's leading democracy into the world's leading jailer. "Those political victories are part of a broader strategy to promote more sensible drug policies," said Ethan Nadelman, executive director of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, which co-sponsored six of the state initiatives and is backed by financier George Soros.

California voters passed Proposition 36, which requires treatment, not jail, for drug possession or use. The initiative, which passed by a 61-39 margin, also provides treatment instead of a return to prison for parolees who test positive for drug use. The measure allocates $120 million a year to pay for expanded drug treatment, supplemented by job and literacy training and family counseling.

Since California has the highest incarceration rate for drug use in the nation and is often seen as a bellwether for national trends, voters there may have given a nudge to others who bemoaned the disastrous consequences of the drug war but were intimidated from speaking out about pro-drug-war propaganda.

California was not the first state to adopt a "harm-reduction" approach to drug policy. In 1996 Arizona voters passed Proposition 200, which also required drug treatment rather than jail for first-time drug offenders.

According to a recent report by the Arizona Supreme Court, Nadelman said, the Arizona policy has been successful. Harm-reduction policies seek to reduce the social harm of drug abuse by framing it as a public health rather than a criminal justice problem. "For too long drug policies have been driven by a combination of ignorance, fear, prejudice and profit," Nadelman said in a news conference following the 1996 election. "We want policy based on common sense, science, public health and human rights."

Nadelman's organization joined with the Campaign for New Drug Policies to co-sponsor the California measure as well as initiatives in Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. They were victorious everywhere but Massachusetts. Alaska voters defeated an initiative they did not sponsor, which called for the legalization of marijuana.

In Nevada and Colorado voters passed initiatives to make marijuana legal for medical use upon recommendation of a physician. Residents with certain illnesses will be eligible for credentials that permit them to possess or cultivate marijuana for personal use. Those two states join six others that already allow patients with cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis, among other diseases, to possess or grow the plant for personal use.

Voters in Oregon and Utah decided to end the practice that allowed law enforcement agencies to seize and sell the assets of drug crime suspects. Police could confiscate the property of any drug suspect and profit from the proceeds without any proof of guilt. Such policies provide a perverse incentive for police agencies to pursue drug cases, even if they aren't really drug cases. Property may still be seized with probable cause. However, the proceeds of the forfeitures will now go into a new drug treatment fund instead of into the pockets of the law enforcement agency that seized the assets. The news wasn't as good for harm-reduction strategies in Massachusetts, where voters defeated an initiative that would have reformed the system of property seizures and provided treatment instead of jail to low-level drug offenders including some low-level drug dealers.

"Sympathy may be growing for drug users but that sympathy does not extend to drug dealers," said Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies. He blames the defeat of the Massachusetts measure on its offer of treatment to low-level drug dealers.

"We won a very significant and hopefully trend-setting victory in California," Zimmerman said. He said our self-destructive drug policies have remained in place because politicians assume voters want lock-'em-up policies. "I think Proposition 36 will teach elected officials that voters want drug policies that are safer, cheaper, smarter and more effective."

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times.

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