Just Vote No
The war on drugs loses at the polls
by Salim Muwakkil
The Progressive magazine, December 2000
The results of the presidential vote may hang in limbo, but
there seems to be little doubt that voters are ready to retreat
from this nation's war on drugs. On November 7 there were drug
policy issues on the ballots of seven states, and voters opted
to reform drug laws in five of them. More and more Americans are
concluding that the drug war has been a colossal failure; rather
than curb drug abuse, it has fueled a murderous underground economy,
corroded the civil liberties of all U.S. citizens, and transformed
the world's leading democracy into the world's leading jailer.
The Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, which is funded
by financier George Soros, joined with the Campaign for New Drug
Polices to co-sponsor ballot measures in California, Colorado,
Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Utah this fall. (Voters in Alaska
defeated an initiative calling for the legalization of marijuana,
which the groups did not sponsor.)
Their biggest victory was in California, where voters passed
Proposition 36, a measure that will require treatment instead
of jail for those arrested for drug possession or use. The initiative,
which passed by a 61 to 39 percent margin, also provides treatment
instead of a return to prison for parolees who test positive for
drugs. Prop 36 allocates $120 million a year to pay for expanded
drug treatment, supplemented by job and literacy training and
family counseling. "We won a very significant and hopefully
trend-setting victory in California," says Bill Zimmerman,
executive director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies. "I
think Proposition 36 will teach elected officials that voters
want drug policies that are safer, cheaper, smarter and more effective."
Arizona voters passed a similar proposition four years ago,
requiring drug treatment rather than jail for first-time drug
offenders. According to a recent report by the Arizona Supreme
Court, the policy has been a success. But since California has
the highest incarceration rate for drug use in the nation, and
is often seen as a bellwether for national trends, the state's
voters may have given a nudge to others who bemoaned the disastrous
consequences of the drug war, but were intimidated from speaking
out by drug war propaganda.
Since California voters first approved of medical marijuana
in 1996, seven other states have followed suit. In this election,
Nevada and Colorado voters passed initiatives to make marijuana
legal for medical use upon the recommendation of a physician.
Residents with certain illnesses will be eligible for credentials
that permit them to possess or cultivate marijuana for their own
When California passed its medical marijuana initiative, Gen.
Barry McCaffrey, the outgoing czar of the Office of National Drug
Control Policy, and other officials of the Clinton administration
threatened to take away the license of any doctor who dared to
recommend marijuana for their patients. But the Lindesmith Center
and the ACLU joined several physicians in a lawsuit against McCaffrey's
office for violating their First Amendment rights. The plaintiffs
recently won a ruling that enjoined the federal government from
taking any action.
Other states where medical marijuana measures have passed
are quietly adjusting to the provisions of the initiatives. "These
laws are on the books and they're working," Zimmerman says.
"Medical patients are using marijuana with impunity."
Meanwhile, in a major blow to the drug warriors, voters in
Oregon and Utah decided to end the practice that allows law enforcement
agencies to seize and sell the assets of drug crime suspects.
Without any proof of guilt, police in most states can confiscate
the property of any drug suspect and profit from the proceeds
of selling it. This provides a perverse incentive for police to
pursue drug cases. Ethan Nadelman, executive director of the Lindesmith
Center, says it's no coincidence that the number of drug arrests
keeps increasing. "They are double what they were in the
'80s, because policy priorities have shifted in inappropriate
ways to target drug offenders," he notes. "Why? Unfortunately,
because that's where the money is."
Property may still be seized with probable cause in Oregon
and Utah. However, the proceeds of the forfeitures will now go
into new education or drug treatment funds instead of into the
pockets of law enforcement agencies. In Oregon, the measure passed
with 66 percent of the vote, and in Utah the margin of victory
was 69 percent to 31 percent. "The measures passed with such
wide majorities because they united people across the policy spectrum,"
Zimmerman says, pointing out that Utah is one of the most conservative
states in the country. "Liberals interested in defending
human rights were united with conservatives interested in protecting
property rights, and both groups felt their rights were being
violated by the current asset-forfeiture laws. It was a right-left
The news for drug war opponents wasn't so good in Massachusetts,
where voters defeated an initiative that would have reformed the
system of property seizures and provided treatment instead of
jail for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Zimmerman blames
the loss on the measure's offer of treatment to low-level drug
dealers as well as users. "Sympathy may be growing for drug
users," he says, "but that sympathy does not extend
to drug dealers."
But Nadelman points out that, since 1996, 17 out of 19 initiatives
and referendums have passed around the country in favor of drug
policy reform. "But in the past year," he adds, "there
have been more victories in state legislatures for drug policy
reform than in the past 25 years put together."
This year Hawaii became the first state to approve medical
marijuana through the legislative process; and along with the
North Dakota legislature, Hawaii decided to legalize the cultivation
of industrial hemp. The Vermont legislature established a methadone
treatment program for heroin addicts. New York, New Hampshire
and Rhode Island all passed pivotal legislation to make sterile
needles more available to addicts to help stem the still-raging
What's more, black leadership finally is jumping on the bandwagon.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) once
led the charge for the drug war, but now complain about how punitive
drug policies fuel the racial imbalances of the "corrections-industrial
complex." Reps. Maxine Waters (D-California) and John Conyers
(D-Michigan) also have added their voices to the growing chorus.
Even Republicans like New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Salt Lake
City Mayor Rocky Anderson have become consistent critics of drug
war tactics. Johnson has gone so far as to argue that marijuana
should be legalized.
"Those political victories are part of a broader strategy
to promote more sensible drug policies," Nadelman says. "For
too long drug policies have been driven by a combination of ignorance,
fear, prejudice and profit. We want policy based on common sense,
science, public health and human rights."