Voters Demand Drug War Cease-Fire
The "will of the people" is all the rage these days. If it were a movie, they'd be lining up the Oscars. If it were a stock, it would be soaring. If it were a toy, it would be this year's Furby. It's getting even better buzz than "the rule of law." "This is a time to honor the true will of the people," said Al Gore last week, after earlier claiming that all that mattered was "making sure that the will of the American people is expressed and accurately received."
I'm glad everyone is now singing the praises of the innate and infinite wisdom of the American voter. But while the people's choice for president may come down to a smudged postmark on a rejected absentee ballot, there's at least one issue on which the American people provided a crystal clear indication of what their will is: the war on drugs. They want a cease-fire.
Two weeks ago, voters in five states overwhelmingly passed drug policy reform initiatives, including Prop. 36 in California, which will shift the criminal justice system's focus from incarceration to treatment. The measure garnered more than 60 percent of the popular vote, 7 percent more than Al Gore received in the state, and 18 percent more than George W. Bush. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a mandate.
In fact, since 1996, 17 of the 19 drug policy reform initiatives have passed. But despite this rather unambiguous expression of the popular will, politicians have repeatedly failed to honor it. When the people of California, for example, voted in 1996 to allow the medical use of marijuana, then-Gov. Pete Wilson called it "a mistake" that "effectively legalizes the sale of marijuana," while the federal government went to court to overturn the wishes of the electorate.
But perhaps this year, with the margins of victory growing enviably higher, politicians are beginning to see the writing -- smudges, dimpled, hanging and otherwise -- on the voting booth wall. When Prop. 36 passed despite being solidly opposed by the California political establishment, the response of Gov. Gray Davis, who had campaigned against it, was: "The people have spoken."
And thank God, because it's in Davis' state that their voices will have the greatest impact since a third of California's inmates are behind bars on drug charges. Under Prop. 36, up to 36,000 nonviolent drug offenders and parole violators are expected to be put into treatment programs instead. The initiative earmarks $120 million annually to fund these programs, as well as family counseling and job and literacy training.
With its shift from high-cost imprisonment to low-cost, high-common-sense treatment, Prop. 36 is estimated to save taxpayers more than $200 million a year -- and an additional half a billion dollars by eliminating the need for new prisons. As UC Berkeley professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore pointed out, "California has spent more than $5 billion building and expanding more than 23 prisons in the past 20 years, while only one new university has been built from the ground up."
At the same time, voters in Utah and Oregon passed by enormous margins -- 69 and 66 percent, respectively -- initiatives designed to make it harder for police to seize the property of suspected drug offenders. Just as significantly, all proceeds from forfeited assets will now be used to fund drug treatment or public education programs instead of to fill the coffers of law enforcement agencies. Both measures were backed by people from across the ideological spectrum concerned with property rights, civil rights and racial justice.
And in Nevada and Colorado, voters passed initiatives making marijuana legal for medical use -- joining Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia.
Meanwhile, post-election editorials in papers across the country reflected the public's radical rethinking of the drug war. Newsweek even devoted its election week cover story to "America's Prison Generation," about the 14 million mostly black or Latino Americans who will spend part of their lives behind bars -- the huge increase being largely the result of drug war policies.
"The future of drug policy reform," said Ethan Nadelmann, who heads The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, "will be at the state and local levels, where people are searching for pragmatic solutions to local drug problems. The White House and the new Congress should stay tuned."
In a further indication of a shift in the political wind, a prominent member of Congress, Benjamin A. Gilman, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, last week suddenly withdrew his support of our $1.3 billion drug war aid package to Colombia, citing military abuses there as evidence that the U.S. is embarking on a "major mistake."
As for our two presidents-in-waiting, they have said remarkably little about the drug war -- other than that they plan to get tougher on it. But if either candidate enjoyed the support that drug reform did, he'd be packing boxes now. The resounding success of drug policy reform initiatives makes it clear that whoever ends up occupying the Oval Office had better change his tune if he intends to do more than pay lip service to honoring the will of the people.