San Jose Mercury News
December 4, 2000


'Make Sense, Not War': Public Wises Up to Bad Drug Policies


by Joanne Jacobs

ACTOR Robert Downey Jr. spent a year in Corcoran State Prison. Less than four months ago, he was paroled. Cast as the new love interest on ``Ally McBeal,'' and offered a part in an upcoming ``Hamlet,'' Downey seemed to be reviving his career. Last week, he was arrested again. He'll be arraigned Dec. 27 on charges that call for a minimum of three years behind bars.

His crime? He's a drug addict. His victim? Robert Downey Jr.

His only hope? A truce in the war on drugs.

American voters split down the middle in picking a president this year. But on drug policy, a clear majority is emerging: Americans want to get smart on drugs.

Drug policy issues were on the ballot in six states. The results show that Americans are willing to rethink drug-control strategies in pragmatic ways. The movement's slogan might be: Make Sense, Not War.

``Go to treatment,'' said California voters. ``Go directly to drug treatment. Do not rot in jail. Do not cost millions of dollars in prison costs.''

In passing Proposition 36 by a 61 percent margin, voters decided that non-violent offenders shouldn't be locked up for drug possession unless they flunk two chances at rehab. People who've failed drug treatment in the past get a fresh start under the law, which goes into effect July 1.

The law provides $180 million in start-up costs, then $120 million to fund new treatment options. It will divert 36,000 Californians from cells to treatment centers, estimates the Legislative Analyst. That would save about $500 million in prison construction and about $225 million a year in operating costs, the analyst predicted.

A Rand report released just before the election predicted Proposition 36 will reduce crime: Studies show drug offenders in treatment programs are much less likely to commit crimes then and later.

Proposition 36 was based on an Arizona initiative passed five years ago that's credited -- by some -- with lowering jail costs and helping some users stay out of trouble.

Making it all work in California will not be easy. The state needs to expand the treatment system, beef up parole follow-up and add money for drug testing, which 36 does not fund.

But even if 36 doesn't fulfill the projections, it's got to be better than what we've been doing. Some 30 percent of California inmates are locked up on drug charges. More than 80 percent have a drug or alcohol problem, according to state correction officials.

Like Downey, many users backslide again and again. Some eventually are able to maintain a drug-free life; others can't kick their habits completely but can reduce their use of drugs and the criminal behavior that supports it.

California isn't the only state where the voters are seeking to put more money into drug treatment and roll back excesses of the drug war.

On Election Day, conservative Utah limited asset forfeiture, mostly used in drug cases; 69 percent of voters said the government must prove by ``clear and convincing evidence'' that property it wishes to confiscate was involved in a crime. Profits from seizures will go to public education, not law enforcement.

Liberal Oregon passed a similar law by a 66 percent margin: Property can't be confiscated without conviction of a crime, and proceeds of forfeitures must go to fund drug treatment not law enforcement.

Nevada and Colorado passed constitutional amendments letting patients with certain illnesses use marijuana, if recommended by a physician. Both set up a state-run confidential registry of patients allowed to grow and use marijuana. Nevada's law directs the state legislature to create a legal supply for medicinal marijuana users.

In California, Mendocino County voters went a step further, backing a county-wide initiative to decriminalize backyard marijuana gardens.

Medicinal marijuana is a proven winner at the polls, despite fierce opposition from the feds. In earlier elections, voters OK'd medicinal marijuana in California, Oregon, Alaska, Washington State, Maine and Washington, D.C.

Only in Massachusetts did a drug peace measure fail: 53 percent of voters rejected a measure expanding eligibility for treatment, instead of jail, and redirecting forfeitures to a drug treatment fund.

The public's pragmatism deserves smarter, more sensible leadership from the federal government. The public is ready for a change. Now we need a leader.

Joanne Jacobs is a member of the Mercury News editorial board.

Copyright 2000 Mercury News. All rights reserved.

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