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Pass the Ballot, My Friend 

Keep ordinary drug users out of the joint

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
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It is hard to imagine any realm of American culture more riddled with hypocrisy than our collective attitude toward drug use. Pushing Ritalin on children already enslaved by Pokemon addictions is standard middle-class practice, but a teen on acid would be better locked away. Daily infusions of Prozac keep the work force humming, but a hit of marijuana before bed smacks of degeneracy. Skyy and Chivas compete for yuppie dollars, weekend bar-hopping is all in good fun, but renegade pleasure-seekers who prefer coke or heroin are troubled and diseased. This is not to say that drug addiction is not destructive, only to point to the absurdity of its singular demonization in a society driven by compulsive consumption.

All of this would be just another bizarre American quirk, something for Europeans to laugh about, were its consequences not so monstrous. Two million Americans are now in prison, with hundreds of thousands more in county jails, and -- a figure that cannot be repeated enough -- one out of every 20 black men over 18 is right now doing time in a state or federal pen, thanks in large part to our war on drugs, as America‘s quiet race war is euphemistically labeled. Despite a lack of evidence that incarceration prevents drug use -- few drugs are not available behind bars -- the madness continues. California today imprisons 25 times more people, disproportionately black and Latino, for drug offenses than the state did in 1980, which is more than twice the national growth rate for the same crimes. As social services wither and the education system founders, the state has built 21 prisons since 1994, nearly twice as many as were built over the previous 130 years.

This year, one ballot measure offers some relief. Modeled after a successful 1996 Arizona initiative, Proposition 36 would prevent the courts from incarcerating first- and second-time offenders convicted of possession of drugs for personal use. Instead, they would be herded into treatment programs. Drug dealers, anyone who used a gun at the time of their arrest, and anyone who served time for serious or violent felonies within five years of their drug convictions would not be eligible.

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The nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that Proposition 36 would put as many as 24,000 drug offenders into treatment rather than state prison each year, and divert another 12,000 from terms in county jail, thereby saving the state between $100 million and $150 million, and counties another $40 million annually. It would also save the state between $450 million and $550 million in prison-construction costs, as well as several million dollars annually in court fees and an unknown amount ”for health care, public assistance and law-enforcement programs.“

Savings in terms of human costs would be greater still. Thousands of families would not be torn apart by prison sentences; thousands of individuals would not be twisted and hardened by years spent behind bars; thousands more would not find themselves rendered unemployable by an indelible felony conviction stamped on their records (the initiative lets defendants petition to have charges dismissed once they have successfully completed treatment). And thousands who otherwise would have received no help at all would be lifted, at least temporarily, from addiction and be less likely to end up in chains again, be they hardened steel shackles or the equally sturdy bonds of stem and syringe.

Proposition 36, of course, has its opponents. The campaign against the initiative has been heavily funded by San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos, and has the enthusiastic backing of the powerful prison guards‘ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which has thus far invested $25,000 in the fight. The arguments presented on the Californians United Against Drug Abuse Web site are a sundry mix of misinformation and fear-mongering. There is the familiar canard that the initiative ”sends the wrong message to our children“; the amusing but irrelevant factlet that ”workers who use drugs are three times more likely to be late for work“; the embarrassing NIMBY claim that new treatment programs will end up ”housing drug addicts near our schools“; the simply untrue assertion that Proposition 36 ”eliminates prison for people convicted of possessing illegal drugs while armed with loaded firearms“ (it does not); the notion that the initiative ”eliminates consequences for failing treatment“ (the consequences are one to three years in lockup); the hysterical and blatantly false charge that ”rapists, child molesters and other sex offenders convicted of possessing ’date rape‘ drugs could escape a jail or prison term“ (unless they were plotting to drug and rape themselves, they would not -- the law only applies to those charged with possession of a drug for personal use, not for use on others).

Proposition 36’s online opponents also proclaim that it ”opens the door to fraud, abuse, and fly-by-night drug treatment programs run by people interested in money, not results.“ In fact, it would only fund state-licensed programs. Thus, the claim that ”the initiative fails to specify who will regulate these facilities and fails to set licensing requirements and minimum treatment standards“ is more than slightly misleading; the state Alcohol and Drug Programs Office already sets licensing requirements and treatment standards.

The human representative of the No on 36 campaign, Jean Muñoz, a hired gun from the political consulting firm McNally Temple Associates, is rather more rational than the online propaganda. Muñoz charges that the problem with the initiative is simply that it would provide less effective treatment than drug courts provide today. ”If the objective is to help people overcome their addictions,“ Muñoz says, ”then what we need to do is expand existing programs that are already working,“ i.e., drug courts. Muñoz claims the treatment offered by Proposition 36 would be less effective than that prescribed by drug courts because it specifically prohibits the funding of drug testing and because it precludes the possibility of the ”coercive treatment“ offered in such courts, in which judges punish offenders with dirty test results by throwing them in jail for a week or two. ”Drug addicts don‘t necessarily want to be in the treatment programs,“ she explains. After a few rounds of coercive treatment, ”They finally come around to wanting to get clean.“

Proposition 36 campaign manager Dave Fratello says the issue is more than a philosophical difference over methods (”Ours puts the money into treatment. Theirs puts the focus on monitoring and punishment“). Drug courts do not exist in every county, and now reach only about 5 percent of eligible defendants. They are, he says, ”very reliant on the individual judge,“ who, with a combination of compassion, firmness and detailed attention to each individual case, follows offenders throughout their recovery. ”The problem is that we don’t have enough judges like that,“ Fratello says. ”It‘s just not realistic to grow that system.“

The provision against funding drug testing, he explains, would not prevent judges from mandating testing. It would just require them to use pre-existing funding sources, preserving the money put aside by the initiative for treatment itself.

Proposition 36 will not heal the hypocritical heart of a nation that extols the empty pleasures of consumerism while excoriating the unsanctioned ecstasies of illegal drugs. It will not prevent the prohibition-spurred violence that takes thousands of lives each year. It will not help the inhabitants of countries whose entire economies and political systems have been corrupted by our war on drugs. It will not cure the massive inequities that drive so many into addiction and despair. But it very well may save tens of thousands of people who have hurt no one but themselves (if that) from having their lives destroyed by the cruelties of incarceration.

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