A New Era for Drug Policy?

A New Era for Drug Policy?
Posted by FoM on December 30, 2000 at 17:00:29 PT
Source: Orange County Register 
One of the more important things California voters did this year was to pass Proposition 36, which changed sentencing laws so that most non-violent drug-possession offenders will receive at least a chance at drug treatment before being put in prison, by a whopping 61-39 percent margin. It may well be the most significant event of the year 2000 when people look back on it five or 10 years from now. 
Taken in conjunction with similar measures passed and decisions made in other states, it could represent a turning point in the country's approach to drug use and addiction. But there will be numerous opportunities for mistakes and wrong turns along the way, and no doubt many will be made. It will not be easy for state and county governments to implement this measure - even though it provided $60 million to get a system up and running between now and July 2001, when the new law goes into effect. Already we are hearing some grumbling as agencies scramble to stake claims to the money. The biggest mistake would be to view the new law as a cure-all for drug problems and to spin problems and failures as evidence that the new approach can't work. Voters approved the initiative because they have come to recognize that the old system of putting people who have problems with certain drugs in jail was not exactly a rip-roaring success. As Dave Fratello, spokesman for the Campaign for New Drug Policies, chief sponsor of Proposition 36, told a reporter earlier this month, "The false promise of the drug war is that we can get rid of drugs and persuade everyone to quit. We are trying to be more realistic here." That realism suggests that, whatever policies government adopts, some percentage of the population is going to have trouble with certain drugs. It is also correct to wonder if a taxpayer-funded treatment system might encourage addicts to depend on the state rather than take personal responsibility for their choices. But while such a policy is bound to be imperfect, it is probably less harmful than using tax money to throw addicts in jail to receive a graduate education in crime. Some concerns about the new policy are no doubt legitimate. Many authorities, noting a shortage of treatment programs under the current system, wonder if enough facilities can be up and running by July 2001 to handle the estimated 36,000 people expected to be diverted from jail under the new policy. Many critics have noted that the initiative does not provide funds for drug testing, which some consider essential to recovery. Others note that the new system could put new pressures on a probation system that, according to state Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, has suffered "years of neglect." While the initiative requires that treatment programs be state certified, many wonder how the money provided by Prop. 36 ($120 million a year, much less than the cost of incarceration) will be allocated. Some worry that police will "upcharge" - add trivial charges to possession cases to prevent full implementation of the treatment policies. "I have been around for 30 years of big things in drug treatment, like Proposition 36," said Douglas Anglin, director of UCLA's Drug Abuse Research Center, "and they are always a mess." On the bright side, the state government released money to prepare for implementation as soon as the election results were certified. Kathryn Jett, newly appointed director of the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, is apparently motivated to make the new policies work. On December 18 some 650 proponents and critics of the new approach, including doctors, nurses and counselors along with other health and law enforcement officials, met for a conference in Sacramento on implementing Prop. 36. Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies, told us that plausible answers to most of the potential problems emerged at the conference. "Concern about probation budgets is legitimate," he said, "but under Prop. 36 treatment providers can provide much of the supervision needed for probation officers to monitor those in treatment." What is striking so far, however, is the apparent good faith with which most of the players are proceeding. Many law enforcement organizations and judges opposed Prop. 36, but Mr. Zimmerman doesn't expect serious foot-dragging. We hope he's right. There are bound to be problems, and it is healthy to discuss potential pitfalls before Prop. 36 goes into effect. Californians should understand that drug treatment is not utopia and give the new policies some time to work or fail before delivering a verdict. Source: Orange County Register (CA)Published: December 31, 2000Copyright: 2000 The Orange County RegisterAddress: P.O. Box 11626, Santa Ana, CA 92711Fax: (714) 565-3657Contact: letters link.freedom.comWebsite: Article & Web Site:California Campaign For New Drug Policy for Politicians to Catch Up and Lead
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