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Arizona's Drug Program Offers Preview for Voters

Prop. 36: California considers similar plan for nonviolent offenders. Early reaction there is mixed.


PHOENIX — This is where the experiment began, in the land of jumbo cactus and diamondback rattlers. Arizona voters decided four years ago that people caught with drugs for personal use--and no record of violence--should be treated for their addiction, not put behind bars.

Now Californians are being asked to embrace a similar system, and evidence of what lies ahead if Proposition 36 passes next month can be found in the therapy centers and courthouses of our neighbor to the east.

Those who oversee Arizona's program are cautiously upbeat, saying that it saves taxpayer dollars by keeping low-level drug offenders out of jail while giving them the help they need to get clean. Funding for drug treatment has doubled, and one survey showed that three-fourths of those completing therapy stayed drug-free.

But the system is young, and some fiery critics spot trouble. The doubters are led by prosecutors, judges and probation officers who lament that they no longer have the authority to jail program participants who slip up.

Without that leverage, critics say, some Arizona offenders--officials can't quantify it yet--are flouting the law and walking away from treatment. Judges are using other sanctions, as well as creative incentives, to keep people from straying. But it's too early to tell whether such tactics can match the coercive power of incarceration.

"The fact that we don't have that stick anymore is very, very frustrating," said Zachary Dal Pra, chief of adult probation for Maricopa County, home of Phoenix and 70% of Arizona residents. "On the other hand, we've got twice as many treatment dollars in our system, and that's wonderful. . . . I don't think the verdict is in yet."

The only assessment of Arizona's program so far was conducted after its first year. It showed that 61% of those who had completed their treatment stayed clean and had no new arrests. But officials agree it's too early to draw sweeping conclusions.

In California, Proposition 36 would divert many nonviolent drug possession offenders and parole violators into treatment rather than jail or prison--and allocate $120 million to help them get well.

Graduates of such a program could have their convictions erased under the measure. Those who flunk could land in prison.

Treatment is making a comeback all over the nation, fueled by a grass-roots backlash against drug war spending that many consider a losing investment. New York has begun offering nonviolent addicts two years of monitored treatment instead of jail, and most other states--California included--use "drug courts" to divert a small number of offenders into therapy supervised by a judge.

But no state has ventured further down the road than Arizona--a place known for Republicans and tough-on-crime philosophies.

Arizona's prison population, like California's, has ballooned over the last two decades, with a large proportion of the increase linked to drug crimes. Two out of three of those arrested are addicts, and a large proportion of certain crimes--child abuse and neglect, for example--stem from substance abuse, officials say.

The answer, some Arizonans decided, was a 1996 ballot initiative similar to California's Proposition 36. It represented a quantum shift in public policy, proposing that nonviolent drug offenders are more sick than criminally inclined.

Wealthy Supporters Back Measure

The measure's success at the polls can be credited to the same three men who are financing the Proposition 36 drive in California and have bankrolled drug policy measures in a handful of other states. One is George Soros, a New York financier and philanthropist. Another is Peter Lewis, an insurance magnate from Cleveland.

The third is Arizonan John Sperling, who founded the University of Phoenix system and made his fortune by taking public the company that ran it. Sperling calls his multimillion-dollar investment in ballot measures "direct political action to assault the idiocies of the drug war."

Sperling said in an interview that he began compiling a dossier on the drug war in the mid-1980s, convinced that the nation's policies were not just foolhardy but also destructive, and disproportionately punished minorities.

"When I took my company public in 1994, I finally had some money to do something about it," he said. "The drug war is a fraud, and our polling shows the people are way ahead of the politicians on this."

The Arizona measure passed 2 to 1 after Sperling and his allies outspent opponents about $1.5 million to $30,000. Foes were "caught with our pants down," said Barnett Lotstein, special assistant to Maricopa County's top prosecutor and one of the measure's harshest critics. "This initiative was so far out we never thought the voters would go for it."

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