IN LITTLE MORE than a month, California launches a major experiment in the management and control of illegal drugs.Under Proposition 36, which goes into effect July 1, anyone convicted of simple possession will be allowed to choose treatment instead of prison. If the offender successfully completes treatment, he or she can petition the court to have the conviction dismissed.
But under a punitive last-minute floor amendment written into the 1996 welfare reform act by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, anyone convicted of a felony drug violation will be denied food stamps and certain other federal benefits for life. (Rapists and murderers are subject to no such penalties; nor are welfare cheats.)
That makes treatment and rehabilitation that much tougher, both for the offender and her family.
The law allows individual states to opt out of the ban, something that 28 have done in whole or in part, but which California has not. Two years ago, a bill carried by Republican Sen. Cathie Wright that would have ended the prohibition was approved by the Legislature, but vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis because, he said, "Convicted felons do not deserve the same treatment as law-abiding citizens, especially those that manufacture, transport or distribute drugs."
And so thousands of Californians -- among them breast-feeding women, the old, the ill, parents of young children, many of them convicted only on possession charges and long cured of their addiction -- are denied food stamps and federal benefits under TANF, Temporary Aid for Needy Families (called CalWORKs in this state). The food stamps cost the state nothing.
The federal law makes no tender distinctions between first offenders and career drug dealers, between adolescents and adults. And while children of drug offenders can still get food stamps, when a parent is denied benefits, the children inevitably suffer as well.
It's the poor, who need the aid, who bear the brunt of the law's effects; big-time dealers don't need food stamps.
Now a new bill, AB 767 by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, is moving through the Legislature. The bill, which narrowly passed the Assembly in mid-May, would cover only drug offenders convicted of use or possession who have completed a drug treatment program, who are in a program or who are willing to participate in such a program. Drug traffickers would still be subject to the lifetime ban.
The bill has a good chance in the Senate, but the governor has not yet indicated whether he would sign it.
Although he's famously averse to anything linked to poverty, this is one that would serve the general welfare, not just the individuals who would directly benefit from it.
Because AB 767 would eliminate the clumsy contradiction between help and punishment, the imminent implementation of Prop. 36, which voters approved last fall, makes Goldberg's bill particularly urgent.
If offenders who otherwise qualify for food stamps were not denied those benefits precisely when they most needed them, the odds of successful treatment would be considerably enhanced. (The Goldberg bill also would cover people serving prison terms and all those convicted since the welfare reform law was passed in 1996.)
It's a no-brainer. "The denial of aid," said Casey McKeever of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, "can cause serious problems, especially mothers of children who are attempting recovery but need economic support in the process. Some drug treatment programs depend on public assistance to cover clients' expenses."
In some cases, residential treatment centers require their patients to give them their food stamps -- in turn decreasing the cost to the agencies, including taxpayers, which fund those facilities. That makes the drug felony law, as Mr. Bumble said, "a ass, a idiot," undermining with one rule the treatment and rehabilitation that public policy otherwise so earnestly pretends to encourage.
It's not the only such federal law. Another, passed in 1998, denies anyone convicted of a drug offense all rights to federal student loans and grants for at least a year and often longer. Again, no other category of crime -- robbery, murder, rape -- triggers such a penalty.
Until this year, the feds were casual in enforcement -- students who failed to answer an application question on drug convictions, as 279,000 did last year, got their grants anyway.
The Bush administration now will deny the loans to anyone who doesn't answer. Not surprisingly, students and college financial aid officials are organizing against it.
Both laws are artifacts of an era, increasingly repudiated by American voters, when interdiction and punishment were the only effective weapons of drug control.
But in the case of the food stamp rule, the Legislature and governor have an easy alternative: Pass AB 767. If they do, they'll send Washington another signal that there are smarter ways to combat drugs.
Schrag writes for the Sacramento Bee.
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