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 use.

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 coalition."

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 AIDS pandemic.

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."

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