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Dissent Is Gaining in the War on Drugs

November 26, 2000|ETHAN A. NADELMANN | Ethan A. Nadelmann is executive director of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation (www.drugpolicy.org), a drug policy reform organization

Election day 2000 was a big day for drug policy reform.

In California, voters overwhelmingly endorsed Proposition 36, the "treatment instead of incarceration" ballot initiative that should result in tens of thousands of nonviolent drug possession offenders being diverted from jail and prison into programs that may help them get their lives together. The new law may do more to reverse the unnecessary incarceration of nonviolent citizens than any other law enacted anywhere in the country in decades.

It wasn't just California that opted for drug reform. Voters in Nevada and Colorado approved medical marijuana ballot initiatives, following in the footsteps of California, Oregon, Alaska, Washington state, Maine and Washington, D.C. In Oregon and Utah, voters overwhelmingly approved ballot initiatives requiring police and prosecutors to meet a reasonable burden of proof before seizing money and other property from people they suspect of criminal activity--and also mandating that the proceeds of legal forfeitures be handed over not to the police and prosecuting agencies that had seized the property but rather to funds for public education or drug treatment.

These were not the only victories for drug policy reform at the ballot in recent years. California's Proposition 36 was modeled in part on Arizona's Proposition 200. In Oregon, the first of 11 states to decriminalize marijuana during the 1970s, voters in 1998 rejected an effort by the state Legislature to recriminalize marijuana. And in Mendocino County, Callif., voters this year approved a local initiative to decriminalize personal cultivation of modest amounts of marijuana.

Clearly, more and more citizens realize that the drug war has failed and are looking for new approaches. The votes also suggest that there are limits to what people will accept in the name of the war on drugs. Parents don't want their teenagers to use marijuana, but they also want sick people who could benefit from marijuana to have it. People don't want drug dealers profiting from their illicit activities, but neither do they want police empowered to take what they want from anyone they merely suspect of criminal activity. Americans don't approve of people using heroin or cocaine, but neither do they want them locked up without first offering them opportunities to get their lives together outside prison walls.

So what do drug policy reformers do next? In the case of medical marijuana, three things: enact medical marijuana laws in other states through the legislative process; work to ensure that medical marijuana laws are effectively implemented; and try to induce the federal government to stop undermining good-faith efforts by state officials to establish regulated distribution systems.

The strategy post-Proposition 36 is somewhat similar. The struggle over implementation of the initiative in California has already begun, with many of its opponents trying either to grab their share of the pie or to tie the process up in knots. Powerful vested interests in the criminal justice business, accustomed to getting their way, did not look kindly on the challenges the proposition posed to the status quo. If California's new law is implemented in good faith, with minimal corruption of its intentions, the benefits could be extraordinary, saving taxpayers up to $1.5 billion in prison costs over the next five years while making good drug treatment available to hundreds of thousands.

Proposition 36 also provides a model--both for initiatives in other states where public opinion favors reform but the legislature and/or the governor are unable or unwilling to comply, and in states like New York, where no ballot initiative process exists to repeal draconian and archaic laws. The initiative victories demonstrated once again that the public is ahead of the politicians when it comes to embracing pragmatic drug policy reforms. Yet there was also growing evidence this year that even some politicians are beginning to get it. Three states--North Dakota, Minnesota and Hawaii--legalized the cultivation of hemp (to the extent permitted by federal law). Hawaii enacted a medical marijuana law this year, with the support of Gov. Ben Cayetano. And, most significant in terms of potential lives saved, three states--New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island--each enacted laws making it easier to purchase sterile syringes in pharmacies.

New Mexico doesn't have the initiative process, but it does have a Republican governor, Gary Johnson, committed to far-reaching drug policy reform. Many state Democratic leaders are critical of the war on drugs but wary of the governor. The question is whether bipartisan support for sensible drug reforms can transcend generic partisan hostilities. The drug policy reformers' job is to help make that happen.

Perhaps it's too early to claim that all this adds up to a national vote of no confidence in the war on drugs. But the pendulum does seem to be reversing direction. Call it a new anti-war movement. Call it a nascent movement for political and social justice. Or simply call it a rising chorus of dissent from the war on drugs. The election results have made it clear that drug policy reform is gaining momentum--in California and across the country.

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