The results of the presidential vote may hang in limbo, but there
seems to be little doubt that voters are ready to retreat from this
nation's war on drugs. On November 7 there were drug policy issues
on the ballots of seven states, and voters opted to reform drug
laws in five of them. More and more Americans are concluding that
the drug war has been a colossal failure; rather than curb drug
abuse, it has fueled a murderous underground economy, corroded the
civil liberties of all U.S. citizens, and transformed the world's
leading democracy into the world's leading jailer.
The Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, which is funded by
financier George Soros, joined with the Campaign for New Drug Polices
to co-sponsor ballot measures in California, Colorado, Massachusetts,
Nevada, Oregon and Utah this fall. (Voters in Alaska defeated an
initiative calling for the legalization of marijuana, which the
groups did not sponsor.)
Their biggest victory was in California, where voters passed Proposition
36, a measure
that will require treatment instead of jail for those arrested for
drug possession or use. The initiative, which passed by a 61 to 39
percent margin, also provides treatment instead of a return to prison
for parolees who test positive for drugs. Prop 36 allocates $120 million
a year to pay for expanded drug treatment, supplemented by job and
literacy training and family counseling. "We won a very significant
and hopefully trend-setting victory in California," says Bill Zimmerman,
executive director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies. "I think
Proposition 36 will teach elected officials that voters want drug
policies that are safer, cheaper, smarter and more effective."
Voters rebuked drug warriors
like Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
Arizona voters passed a similar proposition four years ago, requiring
drug treatment rather than jail for first-time drug offenders. According
to a recent report by the Arizona Supreme Court, the policy has
been a success. But since California has the highest incarceration
rate for drug use in the nation, and is often seen as a bellwether
for national trends, the state's voters may have given a nudge to
others who bemoaned the disastrous consequences of the drug war,
but were intimidated from speaking out by drug war propaganda.
Since California voters first approved of medical marijuana in
1996, seven other states have followed suit. In this election, Nevada
and Colorado voters passed initiatives to make marijuana legal for
medical use upon the recommendation of a physician. Residents with
certain illnesses will be eligible for credentials that permit them
to possess or cultivate marijuana for their own use.
When California passed its medical marijuana initiative, Gen. Barry
McCaffrey, the outgoing czar of the Office of National Drug Control
Policy, and other officials of the Clinton administration threatened
to take away the license of any doctor who dared to recommend marijuana
for their patients. But the Lindesmith Center and the ACLU joined
several physicians in a lawsuit against McCaffrey's office for violating
their First Amendment rights. The plaintiffs recently won a ruling
that enjoined the federal government from taking any action.
Other states where medical marijuana measures have passed are quietly
adjusting to the provisions of the initiatives. "These laws are
on the books and they're working," Zimmerman says. "Medical patients
are using marijuana with impunity."
Meanwhile, in a major blow to the drug warriors, voters in Oregon
and Utah decided to end the practice that allows law enforcement
agencies to seize and sell the assets of drug crime suspects. Without
any proof of guilt, police in most states can confiscate the property
of any drug suspect and profit from the proceeds of selling it.
This provides a perverse incentive for police to pursue drug cases.
Ethan Nadelman, executive director of the Lindesmith Center, says
it's no coincidence that the number of drug arrests keeps increasing.
"They are double what they were in the '80s, because policy priorities
have shifted in inappropriate ways to target drug offenders," he
notes. "Why? Unfortunately, because that's where the money is."
Property may still be seized with probable cause in Oregon and
Utah. However, the proceeds of the forfeitures will now go into
new education or drug treatment funds instead of into the pockets
of law enforcement agencies. In Oregon, the measure passed with
66 percent of the vote, and in Utah the margin of victory was 69
percent to 31 percent. "The measures passed with such wide majorities
because they united people across the policy spectrum," Zimmerman
says, pointing out that Utah is one of the most conservative states
in the country. "Liberals interested in defending human rights were
united with conservatives interested in protecting property rights,
and both groups felt their rights were being violated by the current
asset-forfeiture laws. It was a right-left coalition."
The news for drug war opponents wasn't so good in Massachusetts,
where voters defeated an initiative that would have reformed the
system of property seizures and provided treatment instead of jail
for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Zimmerman blames the loss
on the measure's offer of treatment to low-level drug dealers as
well as users. "Sympathy may be growing for drug users," he says,
"but that sympathy does not extend to drug dealers." But Nadelman
points out that, since 1996, 17 out of 19 initiatives and referendums
have passed around the country in favor of drug policy reform. "But
in the past year," he adds, "there have been more victories in state
legislatures for drug policy reform than in the past 25 years put
This year Hawaii became the first state to approve medical marijuana
through the legislative process; and along with the North Dakota
legislature, Hawaii decided to legalize the cultivation of industrial
hemp. The Vermont legislature established a methadone treatment
program for heroin addicts. New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island
all passed pivotal legislation to make sterile needles more available
to addicts to help stem the still-raging AIDS pandemic.
What's more, black leadership finally is jumping on the bandwagon.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) once
led the charge for the drug war, but now complain about how punitive
drug policies fuel the racial imbalances of the "corrections-industrial
complex." Reps. Maxine Waters (D-California) and John Conyers (D-Michigan)
also have added their voices to the growing chorus. Even Republicans
like New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky
Anderson have become consistent critics of drug war tactics. Johnson
has gone so far as to argue that marijuana should be legalized.
"Those political victories are part of a broader strategy to promote
more sensible drug policies," Nadelman says. "For too long drug
policies have been driven by a combination of ignorance, fear, prejudice
and profit. We want policy based on common sense, science, public
health and human rights."