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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

What's Wrong With Prop. 36? Ask the Addicts

October 12, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — One problem we have in fighting the "war on drugs" is that anybody who ever smoked a few joints--and I suspect that's most of us who partied in the '70s--considers himself an expert.

And with this anecdotal expertise comes an ingrained fear that one day some cop still is going to slap on the cuffs and haul us off to the slammer. Why aren't they going after the rapists and the killers instead of this harmless little pot smoker?

Never mind that marijuana was decriminalized in California a generation ago. There's usually more punishment for getting a speeding ticket than for possessing less than an ounce of weed. And because voters passed Proposition 215 four years ago, virtually anybody with a headache can claim entitlement to some cannabis.

Now from largely the same outfit that gave us Prop. 215 comes Prop. 36, a step toward decriminalization of hard drugs.

It feeds off the conventional wisdom that we've lost the war on drugs. In truth, we've lost some battles and won others.

For example, between 1979 and 1992, the number of Americans using illegal drugs fell from 23.8 million to 11.4 million, according to the Drug Free America Foundation. But since then, the number has risen to 14.8 million. The Florida-based organization mainly blames the Clinton administration for significantly cutting back on anti-drug message money.

But Prop. 36 has nothing to do with anti-drug education. Nor is it about grounding attack helicopters headed for the Colombian poppy fields or spending less trying to intercept Mexican smugglers. It's about how to handle the Californians convicted of possessing the hard stuff--heroin, cocaine, crack, methamphetamine, PCP, "date rape" drugs.

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Prop. 36 basically removes a judge's options. Currently, a judge can sentence a druggie to the local jail or state prison, grant probation--or route the user into one of the newer drug court programs.

In drug court, the addicts are assigned to intensive treatment and threatened with jail if they blow off the program. The programs claim a success rate in the 65% to 80% range.

Problem is, there's only room statewide for perhaps 7% of the addicts who need the programs.

Up steps Prop. 36 with a requirement that Sacramento spend another $120 million annually for drug treatment. Of course, the governor and the Legislature--awash in unexpectedly high tax revenues--should have been spending that money and more voluntarily.

The state politicians did put up $18 million for the drug courts this year, along with an additional $80 million for substance abuse prevention and treatment. But there hasn't been the all-out fight against drugs that we've seen for school reform or even tax cuts.

The most significant feature of Prop. 36, however, is its removal of the jail threat for first- and second-time offenders convicted of "nonviolent drug possession." All would be ordered into a treatment program. After a third drug conviction, a judge could sentence the addict to jail for 30 days--or order yet more treatment.

Druggies who ducked out on treatment could be allowed two slip-ups. After that, they'd be incarcerated for from one to three years.

The independent Legislative Analyst estimates that "after several years" there'd be a net savings to taxpayers of from $100 million to $150 million because of reduced incarceration costs. The analyst figures that at any given time, there'd be 11,000 fewer drug offenders in prison.

Myself, I'd feel safer knowing that all these loose addicts were clean and weren't coming after my VCR or some neighbor girl with a vial of "date rape" drug. Prosecutors say nobody goes to prison just for first-time simple drug possession; if that's their rap, they've pleaded down from some more serious crime.

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The crucial question is whether an immediate jail threat is needed to coerce an addict into treatment and make it work. Or would Prop. 36 suffice--treatment with slip-up privileges and a vague vision of possible jail time.

I asked some real experts: graduates of drug court programs. All said they couldn't have gotten clean without a lockup--or at least the threat.

"I was scared to death," says Beth Stephens, 38, a former Oakland meth addict. "You don't realize it until you finally get the slam-down. Until you get the cuffs on and you're in holding. And that's the truth."

Marcella Wess, 36, of Redlands, says, "I'd never done any jail time and I didn't want to. It didn't look pretty. That's one thing still keeping me clean."

She describes Prop. 36 as "your get-out-of-jail-free card."

Both sides are right. Much more treatment is needed. But so are consequences. Carrots need sticks.

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