Voters Speak Out Against Drug War 

Voters Speak Out Against Drug War 
Posted by FoM on December 20, 2000 at 15:49:27 PT
By Erika Casriel
Source: Rolling Stone
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 down."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."Note: Five Of Seven Statewide Initiatives Pass.NewsHawk: Courtesy of MapInc.Source: Rolling Stone (US)Author: Erika CasrielPublished: December 28, 2000Copyright: 2000 Straight Arrow Publishers Company, L.P.Address: 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104-0298Fax: (212) 767-8214Contact: letters rollingstone.comWebsite: Articles & Web Sites:California Campaign For New Drug Policy - DPF Gather To Change Drug Policies Is Key To Drug War Efforts Regrouping in Drug War CannabisNews Articles - Proposition 36
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