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April 18, 2004 - The San Francisco Chronicle (CA)


By Debra J. Saunders

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

"YOU KNOW I support the war against drugs. I myself used to sale drugs to support my habit and to get money. I'm in recovery now and I have changed my life. What I don't understand is, it's a war against people, not drugs, " began a letter from a former Bay Area drug offender and young mother named Yvette.

She was writing in support of Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-S.F., whose Assembly Bill 1796 would allow California to opt out of a wrong-headed federal regulation, enacted in 1996 as part of the Welfare Reform Act, which prohibits former drug offenders from receiving food stamps.

Other federal rules disqualify former drug offenders from student loans and welfare benefits -- although, as with food stamps, adults can receive benefits for their children.

How is this for justice? Convicted murderers, child molesters, rapists and former white-collar crooks face no such sanctions.

But if you have a drug felony in any of the 19 states that haven't changed or opted out of the food-stamp sanction, noted Glenn Backes of the Drug Policy Alliance, you essentially serve "a lifetime sentence."

Maybe the law started with good intentions. There is a public interest in insuring that adult welfare recipients don't blow their welfare grants on drugs. It's not good for the kids, and not good for the adults.

But the 1996 regulation doesn't address current drug abuse. It punishes adults -- and indirectly their children -- who already have been punished and may be cleaning up their act.

While murderers get food stamps, those denied food stamps because of a drug conviction could be guilty of simple drug possession. Since 2000, when California voters approved Proposition 36, which mandated treatment in lieu of incarceration for drug possession, the number of felony incarcerations for drug possession has dropped appreciably.

But in 2000, more than half of those admitted to California prisons for drug crimes were convicted of possession -- not possession for sale. Before Proposition 36, said Margot Bach of the state Department of Corrections "the largest percentage of women in prison were in for drug crimes." So the 1996 provision hurts not only low-level offenders, but aging low-level offenders.

Worst of all, the state is withholding food. A group of Bay Area chefs founded a program, Nextcourse, to teach San Francisco County Jail inmates about nutrition and cooking good food.

"Before we went into the jail, we had this whole thought of being in a room full of criminals," said Larry Bain of Jardiniere restaurant in San Francisco, who works on the project.

Instead, "We looked around and these are kids. Most of the women are in their early 20s. Most of the women are moms."

The chefs tried to advise women where they could get nutritious food with food stamps, only to find out that some mothers who were cleaning up their act couldn't qualify for food aid.

The do-gooders -- and letters from Nextcourse attendees -- argue that when recovering addicts are hungry, they are more likely to revert to their old, bad ways. I think that argument can be exaggerated, but Leno noted that addicts are more likely to relapse when they are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. (The acronym is: HALT.)

The California Narcotics Officers Association and California Police Chiefs Association argue along similar lines. Both groups support Leno's bill. "The federal prohibition on eligible persons receiving food stamps due to a prior drug conviction is not only silly," wrote the narcotics officers, "but increases the possibility that the individual will return to the same illegal drug behavior that got them in trouble in the first place."

There are strong money arguments in favor of Leno's bill, too. An Assembly analysis predicted that the measure would bring "several million dollars of food stamps benefits" to the state -- all bankrolled by the federal government. If Gov. Schwarzenegger is paying attention, he should grab this opportunity to get Washington to send more tax money back to the state.

While committee votes have been split along partisan lines, with the Dems mostly voting yes and Repubs on the no side, conservative lawmakers should consider the fairness issue involved here.

Yvette got it right when she said the war on drugs has become a war against people. For some reason, Washington pols decided it was their mission to marginalize drug users, to keep them from getting ahead, to insure that they remain on the outside looking in.

Hot-shot drug dealers aren't hurt by these tactics; such sanctions instead sabotage vulnerable people who have to fight for a place in the secure mainstream of America.

Bully for the drug war.

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