Published on Friday, October 6, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
California's Prop 36 Could Start War on Drug Laws
Backers seek to change federal policy
by Gledhill, Chronicle Political Writer
A group of wealthy philanthropists who disagree with the U.S.
government's drug policy are mounting a national campaign to change it --
and they are using California to lead the charge.
Proposition 36 -- a November ballot initiative that would send drug offenders to treatment instead of prison -- is just one of the steps the high-powered group, which includes billionaire George Soros, is using to slowly change the nation's drug laws.
``The California proposition is regarded as the high profile anchor of a broader campaign to advance our drug policy,'' said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a foundation established to ``broaden the drug policy debate.'' Although the center is not directly involved in the proposition, it is Soros' creation and Nadelmann is an adviser to the campaign.
Starting with California's Proposition 215 -- which legalized medical marijuana -- Soros and others have carefully used their money to go directly to voters on issues surrounding the nation's drug war.
Nadelmann denies that the campaign is radical or that its ultimate goal is drug legalization.
``For too long, drug policy has been based on ignorance, fear, prejudice and profit,'' he said. ``We support a policy based on common sense, human rights, science and public health.''FAVORING REHABILITATION
The practical effect of the group's policy would mean legalized marijuana for medical purposes, access to methadone for heroin addicts and rehabilitation instead of prison, Nadelmann said.
But opponents of Proposition 36 don't buy that.
``This is not about treatment; it's an effort to legalize drugs,'' said Jean Munoz, a spokeswoman for the No on 36 campaign. ``Everybody in our coalition believes in treatment, but it has to be effective.''
That coalition includes judges, parole officers, law enforcement groups and some health care professionals.
``Proponents frame the issue around treatment. It's not about treatment; it's about the decriminalization of hard-core drugs. It will undermine effective treatment programs,'' Munoz said.
Supporters of California's proposition say it focuses on treating drug addiction as a health problem instead of a crime. The drug-treatment initiative would ban prison time for nonviolent first- and second-time drug offenders not charged with the sale, production or manufacturing of drugs.
About 19,700 of the state's 162,000 prisoners are locked up for drug crimes, according to the state Department of Corrections.HIGH RECIDIVISM RATE
Many drug users return again and again to jails and prisons. Drugs are considered to be the leading cause of the state's high recidivism rate among prisoners, which reached 67 percent in 1999, according to state documents.
But opponents of the measure, including many law enforcement groups, argue that judges should be allowed to decide who are the best risks for probation and drug-treatment plans.
``With drug courts there are consequences and accountability,'' said Munoz. ``There is no money for drug testing in their initiative. There is no immediate sanction to compel them to get clean.''
The nonpartisan legislative analyst says that within several years the proposition would result in a savings of between $200 million and $250 million a year for the prison system.
The state would have to allocate $120 million a year to support the treatment programs.NATURAL PLACE FOR CAMPAIGN
California is a natural place to anchor the campaign, Nadelmann said.
``California is a leader in many respects,'' he said. ``And it has an active ballot initiative process, which others don't have.''
Four other states also have ballot initiatives in November on drug decriminalization -- Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah and Nevada -- and Soros has given nearly $900,000 to those efforts.
The group uses ballot initiatives to go directly to voters, who Nadelmann said are more open to change.
``We know a lot of things cannot move forward in legislation,'' he said. ``There is too much political cowardice and dependence on drug war politics.''
Soros and the two other contributors -- Peter Lewis, CEO of the Progressive Corp. and John Sperling, CEO of the Apollo Group, gave more than $1 million to the Proposition 36 campaign as of June 30.
Other supporters of the measure include San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the California Nurses Association and state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco.
These elected leaders, along with others around the country, mean that Nadelmann's efforts are also starting to take hold through laws and local ordinances. The Hawaiian Legislature was recently the first to pass a medical marijuana law, and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, is working to make drug abuse problems fall under the health department instead of the state police.
Public opinion is starting to sway elected officials, Nadelmann said.
``People are saying enough is enough,'' he said. ``They are fed up with the rhetoric. Coercing people is not the way to get them better.''
-- What it would do: Proposition 36 will change state law so that most adult offenders who use or possess illegal drugs would receive drug treatment instead of jail time. State funds would be used to operate the drug treatment programs. Excluded from the program would be violent offenders and those who have failed treatment two or more times.
-- Who is for it: San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the California Nurses Association, California Labor Federation AFL-CIO, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Oakland City Council.
-- Who is against it: Former Gov. Pete Wilson, Crime Victims United of California, California District Attorneys Association, California Peace Officers Association, the Betty Ford Center, and actor Martin Sheen.
-- Major contributors: A handful of individuals account for almost all the money in this campaign. Financier George Soros, Peter Lewis, CEO of the Progressive Corp. and John Sperling, CEO of the Apollo Group, have contributed their own money for the ``Yes'' side, raising nearly 10 times as much as the ``No'' side, which received contributions from developer A.G. Spanos and the California Narcotic Officers Association PAC.
-- Bottom Line: If approved this measure would radically change the way the state handles drug offenses. It goes to the heart of whether drug offenders should be treated as though they have an illness, or must have a punishment such as prison time to scare them into getting straightened out. The measure takes power away from the police and courts, and gives it to treatment centers.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle