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California and the West

Few Aware of Proposal for Drug Treatment

October 26, 2000|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With election day less than two weeks away, most likely voters in California have never heard of Proposition 36, which would treat nonviolent drug offenders rather than imprison them, or are undecided about the measure, a Los Angeles Times poll shows.

But when the ballot measure was read to them, 54% of likely voters who were polled said they supported it, with 28% opposed. And a solid three out of four agreed that more money should be spent to help substance abusers beat their addictions.

Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll, said the electorate's lack of knowledge about Proposition 36 is striking--and makes the coming days of the campaign critical to the measure's fate.

"There's a big opportunity here for one side or the other," Pinkus said. "Whoever has the money to run an advertising campaign can really shape public opinion on this."

Backers of Proposition 36 have a definite edge there, out-raising opponents about 17 to 1. Proponents plan to broadcast TV commercials in California's biggest cities through election day, while foes can afford only a smattering of ads.

Support for the controversial measure transcends party lines and geographic regions, with Northern and Southern Californians backing it, the poll shows.

Men and women favor it, as do liberals and moderates. Conservatives are split, and Latinos are more strongly supportive than Anglos--60% compared with 52%.

A whopping 73% agreed with the statement that "money spent on the war on drugs is misplaced," and more should be spent on treating addicts rather than on incarcerating them.

That finding reflects public frustration with America's old approaches to drug problems, said Pinkus: "Voters seem to feel drug addiction should be treated as an illness, and not as a crime," she said.

Foes of the initiative say they share that opinion, but insist that Proposition 36 is not the answer.

"The issue here is not the drug war versus treatment," said Jean Munoz, spokeswoman for the no-on-36 campaign. "The issue is effective treatment . . . versus treatment under Proposition 36, which has no accountability and doesn't even include funding for drug testing."

Proposition 36 would trigger the biggest shift in criminal justice policy since state voters passed the three-strikes sentencing law in 1994. Under the measure, nonviolent offenders convicted of possessing drugs for personal use would be placed on probation and in treatment programs paid for by the state. Those who sell or manufacture drugs would not qualify.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst predicts that the initiative would divert 36,000 offenders from jails and prisons, saving government as much as $250 million a year. The state could save another $500 million by avoiding the need to build a new prison, the analyst says.

If passed, the initiative would allocate $120 million a year for community-based treatment. Offenders who successfully complete their program could ask to have their convictions erased.

Lisa Kienholz, a Los Angeles bookkeeper and mother who participated in the Times poll, said she favors Proposition 36 because society is making little headway in its war on drugs by locking up offenders.

"I definitely believe that we should spend less money keeping these people in prison and more money helping them lead a productive life," Kienholz said.

But Russell Stephen, a retiree who lives in Modesto, is harshly critical of Proposition 36, calling it a "slap on the wrist" that would do little to reform drug abusers.

"They don't quit until they want to quit," Stephen said. "And by putting them back on the streets to start all over again we're sending the wrong message about drugs."

The poll contacted 1,304 Californians, including 852 likely voters, between Oct. 19 and Monday. That was before either side in the Proposition 36 campaign began airing television commercials--a prime source of information for many voters.

"It's a little dispiriting for both sides to think that we've only reached one in four voters," said Dave Fratello, a spokesman for the yes-on-36 team. "But our ad campaign is just getting underway."

On Monday, supporters of the measure began airing a 30-second ad featuring a Carson physician who treats addicts. The ad will be followed by a second spot that will cycle on and off the air in California's major metropolitan areas until election day, Fratello said.

Foes planned to introduce their ad during the hit show "The West Wing" Wednesday night. The 30-second spot, which features the program's star, actor Martin Sheen, was not broadcast in Los Angeles because opponents could not afford it, Munoz said.

Supporters have raised about $3.7 million--most of it from three wealthy philanthropists who have bankrolled drug policy initiatives in other states. The principal backers are George Soros, a New York financier, John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, and Peter Lewis of Cleveland, chairman of Progressive Insurance.

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