Pubdate: Mon, 28 Aug 2000
Source: Newsweek (US)
Copyright: 2000 Newsweek, Inc.
Contact:  251 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
Author: Michael Isikoff
Bookmark: MAP's shortcut to Proposition 36, The Substance Abuse And Crime 
Prevention Act, items:


California's Voting on Relaxing Penalties for Possession

By Michael Isikoff

California's voters may be in revolt again. The folks who have to foot the 
bill in the state with the highest ratio of imprisoned drug offenders in 
the country -- 134 per 100,000 people, compared with 49 in Texas -- may 
have had enough. This fall they will vote on a sleeper ballot initiative, 
Proposition 36, that would effectively end jail terms for possessing any 
illegal drug -- including crack cocaine and heroin -- and substitute drug 
treatment instead. Last week Prop 36 was ahead by 10 points, and antidrug 
warriors were in an uproar. The real objective, they said, was a 
well-financed national movement that would stop short of nothing less than 
decriminalizing drug use.

Prop 36 is drawing supporters from across the ideological spectrum: from 
civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson to Republican Senate candidate Tom 
Campbell, who says the drug war amounts to "Jim Crow" justice for 
minorities. Financier George Soros and two other wealthy businessmen have 
pledged $3 million to push the cause. They are also financing antidrug-war 
initiatives in five other states. Soros, long a supporter of relaxing the 
drug laws, sees it as a "human rights" issue, according to former Princeton 
professor Ethan Nadleman, his principal adviser on the matter.

Prop 36 organizers sense they have tapped into more than California's 
quirkiness. Thanks to mandatory-sentencing laws enacted across the country 
in the 1980s, the prison population passed 2 million this year, up from 
500,000 in 1980. Now the California initiative will challenge the idea that 
most Americans still back the massive crackdown. "Traditionally, you've got 
to be tough on drugs or you get marginalized [as a candidate]," says 
Campbell. "I'm putting that to the test."

But will Prop 36 do anything to solve the drug problem? Under Prop 36, 
offenders arrested for possession -- not trafficking -- are given the 
option of entering a treatment program for up to 18 months. If they 
completed it, their records would be wiped clean. That would allow about 
24,000 people a year -- those who are now incarcerated in California for 
possession -- to stay out of prison. "This is a watershed," says Sam 
Vagenas, a consultant to the initiative's organizers. "It can blow apart 
the whole notion that the only way to get people off drugs is to 
incarcerate them."

Opponents are just as vehement. They are led by the California Correctional 
Peace Officers Association, the prison guards' union, which has made 
building more prisons its signature issue. The union pumped more than $2 
million into the 1998 campaign of Gov. Gray Davis, a tough-on-crime 
Democrat, who quickly signed legislation authorizing $525 million in new 
prison construction. Letting more drug users stay out will simply put more 
criminals on the streets , the prison guards and their allies argue. "By 
the time [users] come to us, they've got rap sheets as long as your arm," 
says Jeff Thompson, chief lobbyist for the guards.

Union officials have enlisted their own heavyweights to fight Prop 36: 
White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos 
and "West Wing" president Martin Sheen, whose son Charlie has struggled 
with addiction. The campaign will be heated and expensive; and both sides 
realize that Americans far beyond California will be watching. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake