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Vote Backing Treatment for Drug Offenses

Campaign funding limits are winning. Retirement benefits for legislators are headed for defeat.


A ballot measure requiring California to treat nonviolent drug offenders as sick rather than criminally culpable appeared headed for victory Tuesday, suggesting that discontent with the nation's drug war is beginning to reshape criminal justice policy.

Passage of Proposition 36 would make California the second state in which voters have demanded government-funded treatment, rather than imprisonment, for low-level drug criminals.

"People finally understand that addiction is a disease--a treatable disease--and that the answer to this epidemic is not locking addicts up," said Gretchen Burns Bergman, chairwoman of the Yes on 36 campaign and mother of a son incarcerated three times for drug offenses.

Conceding defeat, foes of the measure noted that they were outspent 9 to 1 by its backers, a gap that severely limited the reach of the opposition campaign.

"The devil was in the details of Proposition 36, and we just didn't have the resources to educate the voters," said Larry Brown of the California District Attorneys Assn.

Barring a late-night surprise, Proposition 36 was poised to become the second drug-related ballot measure opposed by law enforcement but embraced by California voters, who endorsed use of marijuana for medical reasons in 1996.

On other statewide measures Tuesday, voters were heartily favoring a plan that sought to place modest limits on campaign funding but threatened to gut a much tougher political reform law that has been tied up in the courts.

A measure to give lawmakers state-funded retirement benefits was headed for defeat, while another seeking to make it harder to impose regulatory fees on industry was trailing.

Proposition 36 asked Californians to launch a wholesale shift in the way the courts handle nonviolent drug offenders. Modeled after a program adopted by Arizona voters in 1996, the measure proposed spending $120 million a year to treat, instead of incarcerate, those arrested for drug possession and ex-convicts who violate parole by using narcotics.

Supporters built their campaign on polls revealing voter disillusionment with the nation's 20-year-old war on drugs and kept their message simple: Addiction, their ads argued, should be treated as a medical problem, not a criminal one.

Opponents had some heavy hitters on their side, among them Gov. Gray Davis, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and scores of drug court judges, who complained that the measure carried too few sanctions for offenders who relapse. Actor Martin Sheen cut TV ads against the initiative, and Betty Ford, namesake of one of the nation's most famous drug treatment clinics, fired off last-minute e-mails attacking it as "a giant step backward."

But the solid advantage in fund-raising went to Proposition 36 supporters, thanks to three millionaire businessmen who have bankrolled drug policy initiatives across the country. With $2.8 million to work with, backers were on TV far more frequently than foes, who raised about $440,000 and saw promises of big dollars from the state prison guards union evaporate.

With the exception of the big-bucks fight over school vouchers, the campaigns involving most of this year's other statewide initiatives were ho-hum affairs.

Proposition 34, the campaign finance measure, sought to impose limits on contributions and require candidates to report donations more frequently. It was written by legislative leaders and backed by organized labor and the Republican and Democratic parties--groups that opposed earlier reform proposals.

The opposition was led by the League of Women Voters and California Common Cause. They argued that the real issue Tuesday was not Proposition 34 but an earlier, much tougher initiative approved overwhelmingly in 1996. That stricter measure has been stalled in the courts, but it may be reinstated and could be nullified by Proposition 34, foes argued.

Another low-profile measure sought to make it easier for governments to contract out for engineering and design work for projects ranging from schools to highways. Proposition 35, put on the ballot by private engineering firms seeking a larger share of lucrative government business--such as the potential multibillion-dollar traffic relief plan proposed by Gov. Davis--was holding a modest lead, incomplete returns showed.

The union representing Caltrans engineers led the opposition, focusing television commercials on the fact that the measure does not require competitive bidding.

Proposition 37, placed on the ballot by tobacco, alcoholic beverage and oil interests, asked voters to redefine certain regulatory fees as taxes. A two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature or local electorate is required to approve taxes, whereas most fees can be imposed by a simple majority of the governing body.

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