Magazine article The American Prospect

Declaring War on the Drug War

Magazine article The American Prospect

Declaring War on the Drug War

Article excerpt

There are few issues on which Americans are as much out of sync with their elected leaders as they are on the so-called war on drugs: suppression of crops and traffickers abroad, interdiction at the border, criminal sanctions for users at home. If it's hard to find voters who believe U.S. drug policies are working, it's even harder to find politicians willing to recognize and confront that they're not.

For the past four years, Bill Zimmerman, with funding from billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros and a few other deep-pocket libertarians, has been making a living exploiting that gap. Since 1996 Zimmerman's Campaign for New Drug Policies has managed to pass initiatives in sever states, from Maine to California, legalizing the medical use of marijuana, and chances are good he'll add a few more this fall. So far, his record is seven wins and no losses.

Now Zimmerman, a longtime California political consultant and liberal activist, is broadening the campaign, aiming to legalize the medical use of marijuana in two more states and running initiatives to reform asset forfeiture laws in Oregon, Utah, and Massachusetts (essentially by imposing a more stringent legal threshold before assets can be seized and by taking those seized assets from the cops and appropriating them either to drug treatment or to schools).

But the "granddaddy" of the campaign, in the words of campaign spokesman Dave Fratello, is California Proposition 36: If it passes in November, it will not only represent a substantial step toward decriminalizing the possession of all illegal drugs, from methamphetamines and PCP to heroin and cocaine; it will very likely send a message from one end of the country to the other.

The campaign's major backers, in addition to Soros, are John Sperling, president of the highly successful for-profit University of Phoenix, and Peter Lewis, head of Progressive Corporation, a large Cleveland-based insurance company. Together they've put some $15 million into drug reform and needle exchange programs, including roughly $1 million to qualify Proposition 36 for the California ballot. They are clearly capable of putting up a lot more, and probably will.

Zimmerman wouldn't call the goal of the measure decriminalization. But there's not much doubt that that's where at least some of his backers would like to go. Ethan Nadelmann of the Soros-funded Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, who, in effect speaks for the Hungarian-born Soros on this issue, says Soros sees the incarceration of drug addicts as a "human rights issue" and regards the nation's drug laws as an area in which "the U.S. is not an open society." Certainly they hope that if voters approve Proposition 36, it wilt-spur the campaign into other states.

On its face it seems an easy sell. It requires that anyone convicted only of possession of drugs "for personal use" be sent to treatment instead of prison, and it appropriates $120 million annually to provide the treatment services. It also requires that all parolees testing positive for drugs or charged with drug possession be sent for treatment rather than be returned to prison. According to the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, those provisions would result in the diversion of 24,000 drug offenders annually to treatment, thereby reducing state and county prison operating costs by somewhere between $240 million and $290 million and saving the taxpayers some $150 million annually. It would also save the state roughly $500 million in capital outlay for new prison facilities. If treatment succeeds on a wide scale, of course, it will presumably also reduce personal and family hardships by incalculable amounts. In early polls, it led by 66-20 percent.

But it's hardly a sure thing. The measure also establishes a complicated process to monitor and en force compliance--one judge called it a byzantine system, "a procedural horror"--that sharply restricts the discretion of judges, many of whom already divert low-level offenders to treatment. …

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