Published on Monday, November 13, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
California's Winning Prop 36:
For Many, Plan to Help Addicts Touched Home
by David Ferrell and Jenifer Warren
Never had Trevor Buchanan faced a ballot measure so deeply personal.

Proposition 36 was not only about policy, it was about the ordeal of his older brother, a recovering cocaine addict. It was about people Buchanan knew--six altogether--imprisoned for drug abuse and related crimes. It was about the neighborhood where he grew up, a well-to-do quarter of San Diego where you might never expect so many users.

"Where there's money to buy it, it's even worse," Buchanan said of the problem. "It's everywhere."

The 22-year-old university student was part of the tide of California's young and old, from cities, suburbs and hinterlands, who voted for a dramatic shift in how government handles nonviolent drug offenders.

Proposition 36 passed with a resounding 61% of the vote. It provides $120 million a year to channel users into treatment programs, rather than into jails and prisons. Graduates of such programs could have their convictions erased; those who flunk could still land in prison.

To many, the message of the extraordinary measure was clear: Old policies are not working. It is time, voters said, to circumvent the politicians and rethink the idea that addicts are criminals. Using speed or smoking crack is not necessarily the province of dangerous men on urban street corners; it is a problem afflicting families of every social stratum.

There is no telling where it will strike next--maybe your wife, your cousin, your father.

"Locking people up for drugs--for an illness many of them can't control--is just primitive," said Rita Lowenthal, 73, of Santa Monica, whose son battled addiction. "What are we going to do, lock everybody up? All our sons and daughters? Where is it going to stop?

"It's amazing and shameful that our country is still doing it. Basically, I think the war on drugs is a big, fat failure."

Bobbi Jones, 60, of Los Angeles watched a younger brother become involved with marijuana and cocaine. Family members "jumped in with tough love," she said, and took turns accompanying him to a treatment center that straightened him out.

That was 10 years ago. He's still clean and holding a job, Jones said, but she hates to imagine how his life would have been changed by prison.

"There wasn't anybody in prison to help him except other drug users and dealers who would say, 'When you get out, come see me,' " she said. "Most people using drugs or dealing drugs have low self-esteem. Why put them in prison? Why not give them the help they need?"

Prison overcrowding has been an unwelcome side effect of the costly war on drugs. Nationwide, drugs and drug-related offenses now account for about one-third of all arrests, more than any other category of crime, the FBI reports.

The federal drug-fighting budget has soared from $1 billion in 1980 to nearly $18 billion a year, in addition to the $20 billion or so spent by state and local governments.

The crackdown has been especially notable in California. More people are incarcerated here for simple drug possession than in any other state, both per capita and in total numbers.

California's prison system now bulges with 162,000 inmates. One in three is there because of drugs. Eight in 10 have a history of substance abuse, according to the Department of Corrections. And overwhelmingly they are African Americans and Latinos.

Outrage over those numbers--and the continuing drug problem--motivated three wealthy businessmen to introduce Proposition 36. Before launching the $2.8-million campaign, insurance magnate Peter Lewis, financier George Soros and John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, conducted a statewide poll.

They found that only 11% of respondents considered the drug war a success; 65% preferred treatment over prison for nonviolent drug offenders. A Los Angeles Times poll in October found an even larger sentiment for treatment.

"The drug war is a colossal failure, and everybody knows it except the politicians," Sperling said in an interview from Arizona. Actually, he added, "the politicians probably know it too but they . . . figure if they do anything to stop the madness, they would be seen as soft on crime."

Support Came From All Regions

The measure passed despite California's status as one of the leading tough-on-crime states. Legislators here have stiffened penalties for drug criminals, expanded the death penalty, pioneered "three strikes" sentencing and funded $5 billion worth of new prison construction.

The proposition's support came from liberal and conservative communities alike, although it had much less support in the Central Valley.

In San Francisco, where proponents were predictably strong, stockbroker Don Ashton, 36, said what's the big deal: "Are you kidding? Why should you go to jail? Everybody uses drugs now and then."

Marketing analyst Ann Bouton, 30, said only the poor do prison time now. "Anyone with money," she said, "[hires] a lawyer and gets probation."

In conservative Orange County, where the measure passed with 60.7% of the vote, there was a feeling that existing laws haven't worked, prison construction is expensive and government needs to try a less punitive approach.

"There is a change in the mood here and nationwide," said Shirley Grindle, a community activist. "This country wastes . . . a lot of money in the war on drugs."

A 64-year-old voter named Tom, from the tiny wine country town of Napa, also cited financial considerations in supporting the measure. He called himself a conservative who hates to commit more tax dollars to anything. But allowing addicts to languish in prison may be far more costly than paying for treatment, he figured.

"You throw somebody in prison, he's not going to be cured--and who knows what's going to happen two days after he hits the street again?" said Tom, who declined to give his last name because he belongs to Alcoholics Anonymous.

His own two sons, both successful professionals, went through treatment programs after becoming addicted to speed. One has been clean only eight months.

"I bet there isn't anybody, for God's sakes, who doesn't know somebody" whose life is affected, Tom said.

Many of today's voters grew up during a time, the 1960s, when drug use lost much of its stigma. Users were no longer ostracized as "dope fiends." They were celebrated at Woodstock. The likes of Timothy Leary and Jim Morrison became cultural icons, and it was considered cool in some circles to experiment with even LSD and heroin.

Today's teenagers, the offspring of that generation, also grew up in an age of tolerance. In some surveys, 30% to 40% of high school students acknowledge smoking marijuana. Some teens say it is no worse than drinking beer.

"Certainly, among young people, drug use is up," said Lynn McCormack, principal of Mira Costa High, a top-rated school in affluent Manhattan Beach, which nonetheless continues to grapple with student drug abuse.

McCormack blamed peer pressure, stresses at home, ready spending money, and the easy availability of drugs--especially marijuana--for the upsurge.

There is less stigma now, but parents are still alarmed when told that a son or daughter has been caught with drugs, she said. They react mainly by looking for help, not punishment.

"I don't think I've ever seen a parent who wasn't shocked when they received a call," McCormack said. "They're often in tears and they struggle to understand it. But once they get beyond the moment . . . the focus is, 'What are we going to do about this? How are we going to keep this from happening again?' "

A student might be suspended for a few days, but the counseling and rehabilitation go on for many weeks, she said. The emphasis is on fairness and solving the underlying problems that caused the student to turn to drugs--attitudes undoubtedly reflected in the support for Proposition 36, she said.

"For me, as an educator, I would never think incarceration in terms of drugs," said McCormack, who has three grown children. "I fully supported that measure."

Doctors' Attitudes Also Changed

Attitudes in the medical community also have changed. Ten years ago, many doctors did not know how to deal with a patient with a substance problem, said Dr. Drew Pinsky, a well-known addiction specialist at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena.

Now, referrals to treatment programs are almost automatic; 12-step groups have grown by staggering numbers.

"Doctors are tuned in now," he said. "There's no longer the draconian notion that [drug abuse] is a willful process that bad people engage in. It's a disease that has a treatment, and the treatment is effective. It's about time we behave accordingly."

Dr. Gary Jaeger, incoming president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine, agreed, saying drug abuse, like alcoholism, is now regarded as a brain disorder.

"It makes as much sense to put [addicts] in prison as it did to lock up schizophrenics 100 years ago," he said.

That so many actors, athletes and other celebrities have abused drugs, only to be given second chances, may also have influenced public attitudes toward rehabilitation, some experts believe.

Untold thousands of fans have followed the travails of actors Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey Jr., baseball star Darryl Strawberry and others.

Retired jazz performer Buddy Arnold, now 74, who served time in prison and beat a heroin addiction that lasted 31 years, now runs the Hollywood-based Musicians Assistance Program, providing treatment for addicts in the music industry.

"I imagine some people might be resentful" of celebrities who often get a break and avoid jail time, Arnold said.

Maybe they figure, "If the star can get away with it, the common man should be given a shot," Arnold said. "You should not have people doing 10 years for a joint, which actually happens."

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     Times researcher Norma Kaufman in San Francisco and staff writer Daniel Yi in Orange County contributed to this story.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times