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 wouldseem with Bill Clinton, who declared in Rolling Stone magazine that thoseusing or selling small quantities of marijuana should not be jailed.

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

These three politicians may be anomalies, but their willingness to speak outillustrates an important phenomenon overshadowed by the presidentialcontest: Voters are beginning to demand changes in how we treat drugproblems.

Campbell lost, but the California drug-reform initiative he championed,Proposition 36, won -- despite opposition from virtually the entirepolitical and law enforcement establishment. Proposition 36, which divertsnonviolent drug offenders from prison to treatment, was modeled after anArizona plan approved in 1996 with the support of an unusual left-rightcoalition.

This was not the only success for drug-reform advocates. Aside fromMassachusetts, which narrowly defeated an initiative similar to Proposition36, every other statewide drug-reform campaign won Nov. 7.

Over the vehement opposition of the drug warriors in Clinton'sadministration, Colorado and Nevada approved initiatives legalizingmarijuana for medical purposes. (Previously, citizens in jurisdictions asdisparate as California and Maine imposed similar rules on reluctant publicofficials.) Nevada's measure even requires that the state provide a legalpot supply for eligible users.

Tighter seizure laws

Oregon, where voters earlier legalized medical marijuana and rejected alegislative attempt to recriminalize marijuana, joined Utah in reformingdrug-forfeiture laws. Police and prosecutors routinely seize property frompeople merely accused of a crime and keep it for their own use; theseinitiatives require some proof of guilt.

The most direct challenge to the government's lock-'em-up strategy came fromCalifornia's Mendocino County, where authorities last year confiscated morethan $ 200 million worth of pot. Despite opposition from the local sheriffand prosecutor, voters decriminalized marijuana cultivation for personaluse. Although binding on neither state nor federal officials, the initiativefurther 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 sentencinglaws. Hawaii this year became the first state in which the legislaturelegalized the medical use of marijuana. Some states have moved to allow thesale of syringes and cultivation of hemp, and Vermont has established amethadone program to treat heroin users.

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

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

But further drug-law reform is inevitable, because the existing system isn'tworking. This country has imprisoned millions of people, wasted billions onenforcement, and sacrificed civil liberties. Yet the illicit drug tradecontinues to spawn crime and attract kids. And tens of millions of Americansstill use drugs -- some, like actor Robert Downey Jr., even after servingtime in prison.

Thankfully, voters increasingly are saying enough. They know the answers todrug abuse aren't easy -- but they also know the drug war is a spectacularfailure.