Dissent gains in war on drugs
By Ethan A. Nadelmann, Director of the Lindasmith Center*
2000 was a big day for drug policy reform.
In California voters overwhelmingly endorsed Proposition 36,
the "treatment instead of incarceration" ballot initiative
that should result in tens of thousands of nonviolent drug possession
offenders being diverted from jail and prison into programs that
may help them get their lives together. The new law may do more
to reverse the unnecessary incarceration of nonviolent citizens
than any other law enacted anywhere in the country in decades.
It wasn't just California that opted for drug reform. Voters
in Nevada and Colorado approved medical marijuana ballot initiatives,
following in the footsteps of California, Oregon, Alaska, Washington
State, Maine and Washington, D.C. In Oregon and Utah, voters
overwhelmingly approved ballot initiatives requiring police and
prosecutors to meet a reasonable burden of proof before seizing
money and other property from people they suspect of criminal
activity. Voters in these two states also agreed that the proceeds
of legal forfeitures must be handed over - not to the police
and prosecuting agencies that had seized the property - but rather
to funds for public education or drug treatment.
These were not the only victories for drug policy reform at the
ballot in recent years. California's Proposition 36 was modeled
in part on Arizona's Proposition 200. In Oregon, the first of
11 states to decriminalize marijuana during the 1970s, voters
in 1998 rejected an effort by the state Legislature to recriminalize
marijuana. And in Mendocino County, California voters this year
approved a local initiative to decriminalize personal cultivation
of modest amounts of marijuana.
Clearly, more and more citizens realize that the drug war has
failed and are looking for new approaches. The votes also suggest
that there are limits to what people will accept in the name
of the war on drugs. Parents don't want their teenagers to use
marijuana, but they also want sick people who could benefit from
marijuana to have it. People don't want drug dealers profiting
from their illicit activities, but neither do they want police
empowered to take what they want from anyone they merely suspect
of criminal activity. Americans don't approve of people using
heroin or cocaine, but neither do they want them locked up without
first offering them opportunities to get their lives together
outside prison walls.
So what do drug policy reformers do next? In the case of medical
marijuana, three things: enact medical marijuana laws in other
states through the legislative process; work to ensure that medical
marijuana laws are effectively implemented; and try to induce
the federal government to stop undermining good-faith efforts
by state officials to establish regulated distribution systems.
The strategy to make Proposition 36 real is somewhat similar.
The struggle over implementation of the initiative in California
has already begun, with many of its opponents trying either to
grab their share of the pie or to tie the process up in knots.
Powerful vested interests in the criminal justice business, accustomed
to getting their way, did not look kindly on the challenges the
proposition posed to the status quo. If California's new law
is implemented in good faith, with minimal corruption of its
intentions, the benefits could be extraordinary, saving taxpayers
up to $1.5 billion in prison costs over the next five years while
making good drug treatment available to hundreds of thousands.
Proposition 36 also provides a model - both for initiatives in
other states where public opinion favors reform but the legislature
and/or the governor are unable or unwilling to comply and in
states like New York - where no ballot initiative process exists
to repeal draconian and archaic laws. The initiative victories
demonstrated once again that the public is ahead of the politicians
when it comes to embracing pragmatic drug policy reforms. Yet
there was also growing evidence this year that even some politicians
are beginning to get it. Three states-North Dakota, Minnesota
and Hawaii-legalized the cultivation of hemp (to the extent permitted
by federal law). Hawaii enacted a medical marijuana law this
year, with the support of Gov. Ben Cayetano. And, most significant
in terms of potential lives saved, three states-New York, New
Hampshire and Rhode Island-each enacted laws making it easier
to purchase sterile syringes in pharmacies.
New Mexico doesn't have the initiative process, but it does have
a Republican governor, Gary Johnson, committed to far-reaching
drug policy reform. Many state Democratic leaders are critical
of the war on drugs but wary of the governor. The question is
whether bipartisan support for sensible drug reforms can transcend
generic partisan hostilities. The drug policy reformers' job
is to help make that happen.
Perhaps it's too early to claim that all this adds up to a national
vote of no confidence in the war on drugs. But the pendulum does
seem to be reversing direction. Call it a new anti-war movement.
Call it a nascent movement for political and social justice.
Or simply call it a rising chorus of dissent from the war on
drugs. The election results have made it clear that drug policy
reform is gaining momentum-in California and across the country.
*The Lindesmith Center, having merged
with The Drug Policy foundation is now The
Drug Policy Alliance