Drugs  
comments_image Comments

The State Of Drug Reform

Seattle voters pass a marijuana initiative, adding another voice to the growing national chorus saying 'no' to the Drug War.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

The Drug Czar is not a man given to particularly inspiring speeches, but on the topic of marijuana, John Walters gets downright fired up. On a nationwide tour to promote the Office of National Drug Control Policy's new 25-Cities Initiative, Director Walters says he's on a mission to combat the national disease of addiction.

That disease, as he believes fervently, is bred by non-addictive use of drugs. And the carriers of the disease are those peers who spread what Walters calls "The Lie": "That drug use is fun, that you can handle it, and everybody does it. The friend of those people don't realize what The Lie is until is until it's too late."

In Seattle recently to promote the latest effort in the War on Drugs, Walters was able to lock onto his target during his September 10th press conference. In the multipurpose room of a neighborhood detox center, the Drug Czar placed particular emphasis on Seattle City Initiative 75. The citizen initiative demands that local police and prosecutors lay off pot smokers by making marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority. Walters alternately called the initiative "a con" and "phony."

"I think Seattle is as responsible and sensible place as any other city, and I believe the voters will make the right decision [on I-75] if they have the right information."

The Sensible Seattle Coalition -- an ad-hoc group of drug reform advocates backed by the ACLU of Washington, the League of Women Voters of Seattle and the King County Bar Association -- had thought the exact same thing. In this case, it seems the voters had a bit more faith in their homegrown initiative than in Walters' dire warnings: With nearly all of the votes counted, I-75 passed handily with a 59 to 41 percent majority in the Sept. 16 elections.

"[This was] a grassroots statement from the people to their employees -- the police -- that they're no longer buying the Nixon-era rhetoric that marijuana poses an overwhelming threat to public health and safety," explained attorney and I-75 supporter Alison Chinn Holcomb, whose clients have included many college students facing denial of financial aid for marijuana use.

When viewed in context, the success of this carefully worded initiative -- which only applies to possession, and not to selling or trafficking -- extends far beyond Seattle City limits, and helps to explain why Director Walters would spend as much time as he did lambasting this "silly and irresponsible" effort.

According to a "State of the States" report released this week by the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the vast majority of state legislatures passed significant drug policy reforms between 1996-2002.

The report details more than 150 changes in 46 states on a wide range of drug-related issues, including medical marijuana, needle exchange and possession, alternatives to incarceration, bans on racial profiling, and the restoration of benefits and voting rights to ex-offenders. As the authors of the report found, reforms were initiated, sponsored and supported by progressive to ultraconservative Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens and Independents.

Seattle's passage of I-75, said DPA Director of State Affairs Katherine Huffman, is a "continuation of a national trend."

"More and more people want to look at drug issues in terms of health and human rights rather than in the [realm] of the criminal justice system," said Huffman.

Statewide drug policy reforms have been gaining momentum since Arizona voters passed Proposition 200 in 1996, which mandated treatment instead of incarceration for first- and second-time offenders. California's Proposition 36, passed by 61 percent of voters, followed along similar lines. Stark fiscal realities for cash-strapped states seem to have contributed to the wave of policy reforms. With costs of incarceration reaching an average of $30,000 per year (and more for seriously ill and elderly inmates), taxpayers in states ranging from Hawaii to Indiana have concluded that spending as little as $4,000 annually on treatment per person simply made more sense.

But this shift in drug policy hasn't been entirely focused on the fiscal bottom line. The wave of reform-minded bills seem to have also used compassion and civil rights as guiding concerns, as evidenced by medical marijuana laws passed in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Those laws have withstood concerted federal efforts and Drug Enforcement Agency raids intended to disrupt the operations of medical marijuana clubs -- and to arrest those who use marijuana to alleviate symptoms of chronic illnesses.

President Clinton's 1996 federal welfare reform bill resulted in the permanent denial of welfare benefits or food stamps to anyone ever convicted of a drug offense. In response, citizens and legislators in states including Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington passed laws that allowed them to partially opt out of the ban because it was perceived as being unnecessarily harsh and too broadly applied. If people who had raped and murdered could be eligible for public benefits, as the logic went, why should drug users be demonized and punished to an even greater extent?

According to the DPA, ten states (and the federal government itself) have also moved to enact asset forfeiture reforms, usually by putting the burden on law enforcement to prove the necessity of property confiscation. And of particular significance to the almost 1.4 million disenfranchised African American -- 14 percent of the entire Black male population -- states including Connecticut and New Mexico (and, most recently, Florida), have enacted laws to return voting rights after incarceration.

Of all the states in the union, New Mexico and Washington State have led the pack in drug policy reforms, according to DPA's Huffman. With a record 11 changes or additions to state law, New Mexico saw the start of its reform during the tenure of Republican Governor Gary Johnson and his Democratically-controlled state legislature, much to the chagrin of his conservative allies. Current Democratic Governor Bill Richardson has eschewed an aggressive drug policy reform approach, although he has expressed support of sentencing reform. Under Richardson, the New Mexico state legislature shot down two reform bills -- including a revived medical marijuana bill -- earlier this year.

In Washington State, the legislature enacted six drug policy reforms between 1996-2002, including a recent law cutting sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The state expects to save an estimated $50 million and plans to divert the funding into drug treatment.

Significant national changes on drug and criminal justice policy notwithstanding, advocates of reform still have their work cut out for them. For one, progressive voters and legislators in California have been up against Democratic Governor Gray Davis' record-breaking vetoes of drug policy reforms. (Gov. Davis has issued more such vetoes than any other governor in U.S. history, including bills on overdose prevention, restoration of public benefits, asset forfeiture and racial profiling.)

Nationwide, with 450,000 people in jail or prison for nonviolent drug offenses, and a grand total that exceeds 2.1 million, the U.S. continues to arrest and incarcerate its residents at a stupendous rate.

Without doubt, thousands of middle-class recreational users and sellers have been sucked into the vortex of the Drug War. But none have been more impacted than Americans struggling to get by on marginal incomes and low education levels.

New analysis from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) points out that by 1999, one in 10 European American male high school dropouts -- and fully half of African American male dropouts -- had prison records by their early thirties. Nearly 70 percent of the nation's prisoners do not have a high school diploma.

"If we want to create a more effective response to crime, we should divert people from prison into treatment, and provide educational opportunities to those currently incarcerated," said JPI Director of Policy and Research Jason Ziedenberg. Ziedenberg co-authored the report, "Education and Incarceration," with Princeton sociology professor Bruce Western.

Their research also found that African American men in their early 30s are now nearly twice as likely to have prison records than undergraduate degrees.

The incarceration phenomenon has gotten to such a point that even Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently felt compelled to speak out on the issue.

Justice Kennedy, a moderate conservative Reagan-appointee to the Supreme Court, used his appearance at the annual American Bar Association conference in August to call on the association to lobby Congress for a repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing.

"I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences," he told the attendees, according to the Associated Press.

"It is no defense if our current system is more the product of neglect than of purpose," Justice Kennedy said, noting the fact that roughly 40 percent of the prison population is African American.

Gross racial and class disparities in incarceration rates didn't fit into the scope of the Drug Czar's pre-election visit to Seattle.

Instead, Walters devoted most of his energy to explaining how "big money" had tried to influence Americans into believing that marijuana is a soft, harmless drug. Walters also remarked that drug policy reform efforts like I-75 represented a thinly veiled effort to legalize marijuana and other drugs.

In his remarks, Walters zeroed in on three well-known philanthropists who have backed many of the city and statewide drug reform initiatives in recent years: billionaire banker George Soros, University of Arizona owner John Sperling, and Peter Lewis, head of Ohio-based Progressive Auto Insurance. Lewis helped to fund pro-I-75 outreach efforts along with the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

"A fair debate [should not be] silenced by big money," Walters said.

Bruce Mirken, Director of Communications for MPP, responded that charges of undue influence by "big money" in drug policy reform are ludicrous. "ONDCP spends more on advertising in one week than the Marijuana Policy Project spends on its entire operating budget for a full year," Mirken said. "And we're the 'big money' outsiders?"

Walters still strongly criticized the involvement of the three men for engaging in "experiments on public policy."

"Children here will be the payers of the price," he charged, in reference to the suggestion made by both him and Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr that I-75 would eventually result in children accepting and partaking in marijuana use.

Walters also publicly challenged the three men to a national debate about marijuana and drug use, alleging that he had made such efforts in the past and been ignored or turned down.

"When you have truth on your side, speak the truth," Walters declared to assembled reporters. He added that journalists had the responsibility to do their due diligence to help prevent a phony picture of drug use from reaching the people.

In a move that Walters may not have expected, the MPP took him up on the challenge this week, sending Walters an invitation to participate in a nationally televised debate on drug policy.

There's no word yet on whether Walters will accept.

"We'll soon know if he's serious," said Mirken.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a staff writer for the Seattle-based ColorsNW Magazine, a regional monthly focused on ethnic communities. Her articles on prison, criminal justice and drug policy issues have appeared in publications ranging from The Nation to In These Times.