Citizens Quietly Rebel Against Drug War

  Citizens Quietly Rebel Against Drug War

Posted by FoM on November 26, 2000 at 12:27:33 PT
By Joseph D. McNamara  
Source: San Jose Mercury News 

California voters approved a radically different approach this November to dealing with the drug problem. By a difference of 61 to 39 percent, or by roughly 2 million votes, people backed probation and treatment instead of jail for non-violent crimes of drug possession or drug use. Contrast that generous margin with the closeness of the presidential election. Some day, I believe, the passage of Proposition 36 may be compared to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. 
Those two stunning political reversals seemed to occur overnight, to the bewilderment of most experts. In retrospect, the collapse of the Soviet bloc was not that sudden. We simply missed many of the early signs of deterioration within the Soviet Union. Proposition 36 and other drug-ballot initiatives passed by American voters during recent years are signals of a similar erosion, signs that the public commitment to the ``war on drugs'' is deteriorating. A similar public disenchantment with the drug war could be seen in the 1996 presidential election. Proposition 215, which legalized the use of medicinal marijuana in California, received a half-million more votes than Bob Dole and 250,000 more than Bill Clinton got in this state, despite dire messages of opposition from the federal government, prominent politicians and law enforcement groups. Since then, eight other states and the District of Columbia have passed medicinal-marijuana initiatives or laws. In the last election, Oregon and Utah passed initiatives that limited the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize property they suspected was used in a drug crime, sell it and keep the proceeds for their departments. At the same time, Nevada and Colorado passed medicinal-marijuana initiatives. A few years ago, Arizona voters approved an initiative that is even stronger than Proposition 36, and also is meant to get drug users into treatment and keep them out of jail. I endorsed Proposition 215 and Proposition 36 because, during my early years in policing, I arrested many drug users for petty drug crimes without seeing any indication that those arrests helped them or lessened the community's drug problem. In fact, as my academic studies of drugs grew and my police career progressed, I became convinced that arrests for such minor offenses did more harm than good. I served about 18 of my 35 years in policing as police chief of two of America's largest cities, San Jose and Kansas City, Mo. As chief, it became even more apparent to me that an overwhelming percentage of drug arrests disrupted school careers, caused defendants to lose their jobs, exposed them to brutal incarceration experiences and often led many to become career criminals and addicts. On the other hand, a large number of people who used illegal drugs seem to have grown out of their youthful drug experiments and led productive lives. In fact, most of the police applicants I hired had admitted to some drug use in their youth. If we had automatically disqualified them, we would have severely damaged their lives and lost many fine police officers. The California legislative analyst indicated that Proposition 36 would save the state between $100 million and $150 million annually in saved incarceration costs, plus about $450 million to $550 million in prison-construction costs and an additional $40 million annually for local governments. More important, the legislative analyst estimated that the new law would keep as many as 34,000 non-violent drug offenders out of state prison each year. Measure Opposed by Many: Despite these enormous benefits, Gov. Gray Davis, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and almost every law enforcement organization in the state opposed the measure. Proposition 36 was also opposed by almost every newspaper editorial board in California. There were many arguments for and against the measure. The principal argument advanced in opposition was that the measure would send the ``wrong message'' to children and result in more drug use and crime. Yet, crime has been declining in California and the other states that have passed drug-reform initiatives. And, since the passage of Proposition 215, there has been no increase in marijuana use by teenagers in California, whose rate is 2 percent below the national average. Quite frequently, opponents of the drug-reform measures, instead of sticking to the issues, launched personal attacks on three men who have contributed around $4 million to state campaigns for drug reform. The naysayers imply that three secretive wealthy men duped the voters into believing that the various initiatives were beneficial. Actually, Peter Lewis, a car insurer, John Sperling, who founded Phoenix University, and financier George Soros were quite open about their contributions, which were a matter of record. Answering attempts to attribute sinister motives to them, the three said their intent was similar to that of thousands of other volunteers, myself included, who feel that the drug war has failed and is eroding our civil liberties. (I am an unpaid board member of the non-profit Lindesmith-Drug Policy Foundation in New York, which distributes $3 million a year in grants, some of it from George Soros, to further drug research, education and hygiene programs.) The federal government probably spends more than $1 billion a year in efforts to boost public support for its war against drugs; nevertheless, the much-smaller sums contributed to drug reform have energized many Americans. Costs of Drug War: Almost all of the opponents of these measures argued strongly that holding the threat of jail over the heads of drug users was essential to rehabilitation. But this contention has been advanced without any substantiation ever since President Richard Nixon first mentioned a ``war against drugs'' in 1972. Since then, the annual federal budget for the drug war has risen from roughly $100 million to more than $19 billion. When state and local costs are included, the drug war costs us over $40 billion a year. Here's another way of looking at it: The average monthly Social Security check in 1972 was around $177. My research shows that, if Social Security benefits had increased at the same pace as drug-war spending, the average check today would be more than $60,000 a month, instead of around $800. Despite this hurling of money at drug enforcement, foreign production of heroin and cocaine has significantly increased. Some 90 percent of illegal drugs entering the United States come in undetected. The drug war has not sheltered our children from being exposed to drugs. In fact, the vast profits increase the marketing of drugs. This is the result of a roughly 17,000 percent markup for illegal drugs as they move from raw products in Peru, Colombia, Brazil or Mexico to retail sales on American streets. The corruption and violence associated with prohibition is staggering. More than 400,000 Americans, disproportionately low-income minorities, have been jailed for non-violent drug crimes. Change of Public Mindset: Voters may not have all of these details at their fingertips, but they are well aware that the law of supply and demand is far more powerful than laws passed by Congress. In 1990, a nationwide Gallup Poll indicated that 94 percent of those responding did not believe that the best way to handle the drug problem was to jail drug users. California's propositions 215 and 36 and other states' similar initiatives seem to be votes against the government holding jail sentences over the heads of people ingesting certain chemicals, but not others that can be equally dangerous, such as alcohol and Valium. It frightens drug-war hawks that voters may be beginning to think about drugs as social and medical problems, as we did before Congress introduced criminal prohibition of drugs in 1914. Joseph D. McNamara, retired police chief of San Jose, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has written hundreds of articles on criminal justice. He wrote this article for Perspective. Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA) Author: Joseph D. McNamara Published: Sunday, Nov. 26, 2000Copyright: 2000 San Jose Mercury News Contact: letters Address: 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190 Fax: (408) 271-3792 Website: Articles & Website:Hoover Institute Commentary: Criminalization of Drug Use To True Liberty, End Drug War

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