Commentary

Voters Set Trends In How To Grapple With Drugs

This essay originally appeared in USA Today on Dec. 18, 2000.
Lame-duck politicians have a tendency to speak unpopular truths. So it would seem with Bill Clinton, who declared in Rolling Stone magazine that those using or selling small quantities of marijuana should not be jailed.

Nor is Clinton the only politician to criticize the endless war against drugs. New Mexico’s Republican governor, Gary Johnson, another lame duck, has turned drug-law reform into a veritable crusade. Johnson, who admits to past drug use, now is a triathelete who warns against drugs. But he contends that the drug war is misguided. And Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., this year made drug-law reform the centerpiece of his unsuccessful Senate campaign.

These three politicians may be anomalies, but their willingness to speak out illustrates an important phenomenon overshadowed by the presidential contest: Voters are beginning to demand changes in how we treat drug problems.

Campbell lost, but the California drug-reform initiative he championed, Proposition 36, won — despite opposition from virtually the entire political and law enforcement establishment. Proposition 36, which diverts nonviolent drug offenders from prison to treatment, was modeled after an Arizona plan approved in 1996 with the support of an unusual left-right coalition.

This was not the only success for drug-reform advocates. Aside from Massachusetts, which narrowly defeated an initiative similar to Proposition 36, every other statewide drug-reform campaign won Nov. 7.

Over the vehement opposition of the drug warriors in Clinton’s administration, Colorado and Nevada approved initiatives legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. (Previously, citizens in jurisdictions as disparate as California and Maine imposed similar rules on reluctant public officials.) Nevada’s measure even requires that the state provide a legal pot supply for eligible users.

Tighter seizure laws

Oregon, where voters earlier legalized medical marijuana and rejected a legislative attempt to recriminalize marijuana, joined Utah in reforming drug-forfeiture laws. Police and prosecutors routinely seize property from people merely accused of a crime and keep it for their own use; these initiatives require some proof of guilt.

The most direct challenge to the government’s lock-‘em-up strategy came from California’s Mendocino County, where authorities last year confiscated more than $ 200 million worth of pot. Despite opposition from the local sheriff and prosecutor, voters decriminalized marijuana cultivation for personal use. Although binding on neither state nor federal officials, the initiative further demonstrates fading popular support for the drug war.

Rethinking the issues

That changing public attitude seems to be affecting some politicians. Michigan Gov. John Engler and New York Gov. George Pataki, both Republicans, have discussed relaxing their states’ Draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Hawaii this year became the first state in which the legislature legalized the medical use of marijuana. Some states have moved to allow the sale of syringes and cultivation of hemp, and Vermont has established a methadone program to treat heroin users.

So far, the impact of these drug-policy reforms is limited. The federal government continues to block access to marijuana by the sick and dying. Forfeiture abuses remain rampant. And issues such as hemp and needle distribution are peripheral.

Even the success of Proposition 36, which requires that drug offenders fail two rehabilitation attempts before being imprisoned, remains problematic. It still prescribes prison as the ultimate sanction, and will be put into effect by its opponents, including Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who suggests that money may not be available to fund the initiative.

But further drug-law reform is inevitable, because the existing system isn’t working. This country has imprisoned millions of people, wasted billions on enforcement, and sacrificed civil liberties. Yet the illicit drug trade continues to spawn crime and attract kids. And tens of millions of Americans still use drugs — some, like actor Robert Downey Jr., even after serving time in prison.

Thankfully, voters increasingly are saying enough. They know the answers to drug abuse aren’t easy — but they also know the drug war is a spectacular failure.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington.