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June 19, 2006 - (US Web)

Memo to Arnold: Step Carefully in the Prop. 36 Minefield

By Dave Fratello, political consultant based in Santa Monica and coauthor of Proposition 36, California's groundbreaking drug treatment initiative

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As a political consultant whose firm mainly helps Democrats, I have some friendly advice for Arnold Schwarzenegger on drugs

Dear Arnold:

This week, you have some big decisions to make about Proposition 36, a six-year-old, voter-approved ballot measure that requires drug treatment, not jail, in nonviolent drug possession cases.

Get these decisions right, and you've still got a chance at those middle-of-the-road voters you've been courting.

Blow it by tilting too far right (again), and you could slap the voters in the face, starve a popular and humanitarian program, or decriminalize drugs in California.

It could be easy to screw this up, so let's run through the situation briefly.

First, Prop. 36 is popular. It got 61 percent of the vote in November 2000, more than any other citizen initiative or candidate on the ballot. By June 2004, support was up to 73 percent (see this PDF of the poll).

Next, Prop. 36 is delivering terrific results. Don't just take my word for it -- how about the UCLA report on Prop. 36 that you paid for, or the New York Times? Savings of $2.50 in hard dollars for every dollar spent on the program $800 million saved over five years another $500 million in prison construction that's been avoided Sixty thousand people graduating from treatment who otherwise could have been jailed. Pretty good stuff.

Third, law enforcement groups and judges fought Prop. 36 on the ballot; now they want you to take a bullet for them. They're trying to get a bill to your desk, Senate Bill 803, that rewrites Prop. 36 more to their liking. Recently they've spoken of sticking these bad changes in a nearly invisible budget trailer bill that you'd get this week. But their bill invites all kinds of trouble for you (see below).

Finally, the original proponents of Prop. 36 say they'll sue if a bad bill passes.

Now, you have two kinds of choices to make: policy and money.

On policy, you're in a tough spot. No one running for re-election wants to spurn law enforcement. But you might be forced to choose between what the cops and judges want and what the voters support.

The main controversy here (not the only one) is whether to make "jail sanctions" a part of Prop. 36 treatment. When a drug user in treatment relapses ­ as addicts do ­ should that person be punished with 2-30 days in jail, or should treatment be intensified? The cops and judges want to put relapsing addicts in jail to "wake them up."

Some treatment providers agree, but the California Society of Addiction Medicine, a specialty group of physicians, says flatly, "no studies show jail sanctions improve outcomes" in treatment. The doctors worry about the harms of jail, and the disruption of treatment. With little evidence, it's an ideological debate.

It's tempting to side with the law enforcement lobby, but if you help them to rewrite Prop. 36, you risk a backlash.

First, you'll have a lawsuit on your hands ­ and negative publicity saying you've gutted a popular initiative. What's worse, this fight could go to the ballot, too. SB 803 has a weird, unprecedented provision that forces the whole bill to a public vote if a court rules it invalid.

So ask yourself: Do you want to share the ballot with a measure that slaps voters in the face, forcing them to re-vote on something they've already approved?

Dodge the lawsuit and new initiative battle by telling the law enforcement lobby to wait for another day, or write their own initiative.

On money for Prop. 36, you proposed $120 million, the same funding level set in 2000; the legislature recently added $25 million, but that barely keeps the program afloat. People who ought to know say the program needs $210 million.

You've surely got advisers who'd rather trash Prop. 36 along with the rest of the welfare state. Here's the problem with zeroing it out: California would quickly lose about $200 million in federal treatment funds and you would decriminalize drugs.

See, if there's no money for Prop. 36 treatment, the law says no one can be jailed for drug use. That's about 50,000 people per year who would simply go home after a drug bust, if we still had drug busts.

Focus, Arnold: Find some more money. You won't regret it ­ you might not have to build much more costly prisons or jails if this program is allowed to flourish.

As I said, this whole Prop. 36 thing could be a minefield, and I worry you're not getting the best advice. I hope this helps. It's not about me or you, really, but tens of thousands of people who need alternatives. If you avoid the pitfalls here, so much the better for us all.

Copyright © 2006

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