Pubdate: Thu, 28 Dec 2000
Source: Rolling Stone (US)
Copyright: 2000 Straight Arrow Publishers Company, L.P.
Contact:  1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104-0298
Fax: (212) 767-8214
Forum:  Erika Casriel


Five Of Seven Statewide Initiatives Pass

IN THE YEAR 2000, THE U.S. prison population hit 2 million  including more 
than 500,000 nonviolent drug offenders  and on Election Day, voters 
rebelled. In California, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Nevada, ballot 
initiatives that challenge law enforcement's blanket treatment of drug 
users as criminals passed by wide margins.

Leading drug-policy reform activist Ethan Nadelmann says the victories on 
medical marijuana, treatment instead of jail and limiting police property 
seizures signal a desire for a new approach. "The success or failure of 
drug policy should be evaluated," he says, "not primarily according to 
whether drug use went up or down last year, but whether the death, disease, 
crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug policy go up or 

In Colorado and Nevada, voters gave patients permission to use pot upon a 
doctor's recommendation, and registries are to be created to protect users 
from prosecution. This brings to nine the number of states that have 
approved medical marijuana including Maine, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, 
Arizona, Hawaii and California  despite opposition from the federal drug 
czar's office.

Law enforcement took another blow in Oregon and Utah, where initiatives to 
restrict police from keeping seized property passed by large margins.

In virtually every state, police departments  and anti-drug task forces in 
particular - earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year by confiscating 
property from suspected users or dealers, selling it and retaining the 
proceeds, even if no one is convicted of a crime.

Harry Detwiler, a retired special-education teacher in Ashland, Oregon, put 
a face on the otherwise impenetrable topic of asset forfeiture by telling 
his story on radio talk shows and commercials. Detwiler sold some rural 
property to a man who then grew marijuana on the land; Detwiler's name 
remained on the land title.

During a police raid on Detwiler's house, officers found $35,000 in cash, 
his life savings, stored in a safe (he didn't want to keep it in a bank). 
They seized the money, and despite the fact that Detwiler was never 
convicted or even accused of being involved with marijuana, he never got it 
back. "I'm one of tens of thousands of innocent victims out here who have 
no place to turn," he says.

The logic behind civil asset forfeiture, says David Smigelski, spokesman 
for the Oregon campaign, "was to use drug-dealer money to pay the salaries 
of drug investigators. In the early days, in the Eighties, it was supposed 
to be limited to huge forfeitures, but as it filtered down into municipal 
police departments, it just became a big money grab." In fiscal 1998, 
federal agencies reported receiving $697 million in forfeited assets.

An initiative in Massachusetts would have redirected the money that results 
from seized property in drug cases into addiction-treatment programs.

It failed, organizers say, because those who might receive treatment as an 
alternative to jail included some street dealers, if they could prove they 
were selling drugs to pay for their own habits.

Opponents of the initiative, which included all eleven district attorneys 
in the state and almost every police chief, ran radio ads warning that the 
initiative would benefit drug dealers. "It appears," says Bill Zimmerman, 
executive director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies, "that the 
sympathy people have for drug users does not extend even to the lowest 
level of drug dealers."

Six of the seven anti-drug-war initiative were funded, in part, by three 
billionaires who oppose legalizing hard drugs but take pride in using their 
money to help compel a debate on the drug war. George Soros, a New York 
financier and one of the top philanthropists in the world; Peter Lewis, 
chairman of the Progressive Insurance Company; and John Sperling, a former 
businessman and chairman of the University of Phoenix, each gave $2 million 
for the six initiatives. Of the $6 million, about $3 million was directed 
to Proposition 36 in California, the boldest of the proposed reforms. 
Proposition 36 mandates that when someone is convicted of simple 
possession, or other personal drug-use violations, treatment must be 
offered as an alternative to jail. If the offender does not complete the 
treatment program, or otherwise violates probation, he can be incarcerated 
for one to three years.

The landslide passage of Proposition 36  - sixty-one to thirty-nine 
percent  - might be interpreted simply as a sign of taxpayer fatigue.

With the largest prison system in the U.S., at 162,000 inmates, California 
is feeling the cost, at roughly $20,000 per prisoner per year. California's 
nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office has estimated that Prop 36 will 
divert about 36,000 people per year from the state's prisons and jails into 
treatment programs.

Many of these users are nonviolent parolees who would have been sent back 
to prison by failing a drug test. Since the cost of treating people is 
about $4,000 per year, the LAO estimated that the measure would save state 
and local governments $290 million per year and would allow legislators to 
cancel the planned construction of a new prison, a one-time savings of half 
a billion dollars.

But saving money was not the only factor in the success of Prop 36. 
Traumatized parents of drug addicts played a key role in persuading voters 
that treatment, with the threat of prison, was a rational option for drug 
users with no serious prior offenses.

Pushing users into prison doesn't work, says one such mother, Gretchen 
Burns Bergman of San Diego, whose heroin-addicted son was sent to jail for 
relapses three times, worsening his problem. "When they're in the midst of 
their disease, homeless, dying, any kind of threats usually don't make much 
difference to them, even prison," she says. Before the initiative was 
drafted, Bergman had formed a group of parent activists; after becoming the 
Prop 36 chairwoman, she put her network behind it. "San Diego was the most 
active region for us," says Dave Fratello, who helped r draft the 
initiative. He notes that libertarian activists were chagrined that Prop 36 
made treatment compulsory.

One failure at the ballot box, the initiative in Alaska to legalize 
marijuana, was not supported by the two best-funded drug-reform groups, 
Campaign for New Drug Policies and Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy 
Foundation. "At this point, legalization of recreational drug use will not 
be approved by a majority of voters in any state," says Zimmerman. "For 
that reason, we're not going to waste our time trying to pass laws that 
can't succeed on Election Day. At the local level, however, voters approved 
reducing pot possession to a civil violation, like a traffic ticket, in 
three voting districts in Massachusetts and in Mendocino County, California.

Focusing on recreational pot use can seem like a luxury to those who seek 
to help hard-core drug addicts in prison. "Law enforcement thinks they're 
dealing with a behavioral problem and can use tough love," says Dr. Gary 
Jaeger, president-elect of the California Society of Addiction Medicine. 
"Tough love is not a way to treat a primary disease of the brain."

As the prices of heroin and cocaine continue to fall, new illegal narcotics 
enter the market and marijuana arrests skyrocket, ballot initiatives will 
only become more crucial.

Says Nadelmann, "We see Congress and the White House as the last place 
where we'll see sensible drug policy being implemented."
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