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California and the West

Senate Race Turns Party Drug Debate Upside Down

Politics: Campbell, the Republican, says the nation should try distribution of narcotics and improved treatment. Feinstein wants laws made tougher.


Almost a year ago, in one of the first pronouncements of his campaign, U.S. Senate candidate Tom Campbell endorsed a politically perilous proposition: a government experiment in drug distribution to treat addicts and cut crime.

"It is absolutely essential to discuss alternatives to our drug problem because the present system is not working," said the Republican congressman from San Jose. "And if you are not willing to propose alternatives, you should not call yourself a leader."

On many matters of law and order, such as gun control and capital punishment, Campbell and opponent Sen. Dianne Feinstein largely agree. Where they differ most is on fighting drug use--and here the GOP challenger has staked out a position well to the left of the Democratic incumbent.

He argues that America has lost its "war on drugs" and must spend far more on treatment and less on incarceration. She supports making drug laws even tougher, including those involving possession.

He endorses Proposition 36, a November ballot initiative that would send nonviolent drug offenders to treatment rather than to prison. She opposes it, saying the measure would undermine the state's drug courts.

He has criticized Congress' recent decision to earmark as much as $1.3 billion to fight drug lords in Colombia, saying it could lead to another Vietnam War. She strongly backed the action as part of the ongoing fight against trafficking.

Feinstein's stands have helped her in the polls and in winning law-enforcement endorsements.

"Republicans can often say the Democrats are not strong enough on law-and-order issues, but Feinstein has taken that issue away from Campbell," said Mark Baldassare, executive director of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Indeed, the two largely agree on many criminal justice issues.

Feinstein, for example, is widely known as a champion of tough legislation to restrict guns. She fought the gun lobby to win passage of a landmark ban on assault weapons. And she continues to push for federal gun registration and licensing.

Addressing this year's Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Feinstein devoted almost an entire speech to the importance of controlling weapons to reduce crime.

Campbell also supports gun controls but argues that state registration and licensing are sufficient. The same holds true for laws on concealed weapons, he says.

"It is up to the states to adopt rules regarding concealed handguns," Campbell says on his campaign Web site. "Of course, whether a ban would have the desired effect is a matter of debate."

Both Feinstein and Campbell also support capital punishment. Campbell has proposed the death penalty for anyone discharging a firearm in the commission of a felony or dealing drugs to children younger than 12.

But in 1990, he opposed a bill increasing the number of federal crimes subject to the death penalty because of concerns that the legislation violated constitutional guarantees of due process.

Feinstein, an opponent of the death penalty early in her 30-year political career, is now a strong proponent. In her 1994 reelection campaign, she proposed federal legislation making carjacking a capital offense when it results in a fatality.

So the greatest area of disagreement between Feinstein and Campbell is the nation's drug problem, a topic that is rarely so front and center in political debates.

Campbell made the issue prominent in the Senate race by saying, as he has for years as a congressman, that he would support a government experiment in dispensing drugs--such as heroin--with the goal of weaning people from addiction and eliminating the need to commit crime. Then, several months ago, he broadened the debate to take on the nation's drug policies.

Campbell said anti-drug efforts were most successful in the 1970s, when the emphasis was on treatment and prevention rather than intervention. Now, he said, the nation's policies focus on interdiction, and not only fail to reduce drug abuse, but also result in the locking up of thousands of addicts--many of them members of minority groups--for nonviolent offenses.

"Everyone wants the drug dealers in jail," Campbell says in a TV ad. "But for victims of the dealers, let's rehabilitate, not incarcerate.

"Drugs are a health problem," he adds. "Treat the victims of drugs at public health clinics under a doctor's supervision. After all, what would you want for your child?"

Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, said the vast majority of experts in the drug policy field agree with Campbell's assessment that America's hard-line approach to drug abuse has been unsuccessful.

"We have a policy that is . . . divisive, expensive and leaves us with the Western world's worst drug problem," said Reuter.

The idea of providing drugs to addicts, however, is controversial even among experts who favor increased emphasis on treatment.

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