Drug Reform: Coming to a Town Near You

The 800-lb. gorilla of the drug reform movement is moving at full speed to introduce new reform initiatives in at least three large states. The troika of billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis and centimillionaire John Sperling will meet later this summer to give final approval for a multi-million dollar "treatment not jail" initiative campaign in the key Midwest states of Michigan and Ohio and the Brave New South of Florida next year.

Last year, fully 28.5 percent of new admissions to Florida prisons, or more than 7,000 prisoners, were incarcerated on drug charges, according to the state corrections department. In the most recent figures available on the Ohio corrections department website, in 1997 some 6,000 drug offenders entered prison, about one-third of all inmate admissions. The Michigan corrections department web site has no breakdown for drug offenders, although it notes 45,000 prisoners and proudly observes that the department's budget has increased from 3 percent of the general fund in 1988 to more than 15.4 percent this year.

"We are already underway in Florida," the Campaign for New Drug Policies' (http://www.drugreform.org) Bill Zimmerman told DRCNet, "and we will meet soon to make the final decisions on Michigan and Ohio. Polling in all three states tells us we have majorities in favor of treatment and sentencing reforms. These will be styled after Prop. 36, with some minor adjustments to fit local political systems," Zimmerman said. "The initiatives will offer treatment instead of jail to nonviolent first or second time drug possessors -- they have the option not to take treatment -- and the initiatives will also reduce some drug sentences. We think the voters are ready to support this."

The careful reliance on polling, incremental steps and not getting ahead of the voters have been hallmarks of Zimmerman and CDSP's work, and while the Campaign has at times raised hackles among grassroots activists for its cautious, pragmatic approach and limited goals, that approach has resulted in an impressive record at the ballot box. Zimmerman, a Santa Monica-based political consultant, has been the point-man for most of the trio's impressive string of ballot-box victories, ranging from California's groundbreaking 1996 Prop. 215 medical marijuana initiative (where the pros joined forces in an uneasy alliance with grassroots activists) to last fall's near sweep in California (Prop. 36), Colorado and Nevada (medical marijuana) and Oregon and Utah (asset forfeiture reform). The Campaign's chain of victories was snapped only in Massachusetts, where by a 52-48 margin voters declined to extend to low-level dealers the same treatment options that would have been available to persons convicted of nonviolent drug possession offenses.

The Wall Street Journal recently referred to CNDP operation as "a formidable political machine." It seems especially so in the wake of the Prop. 36 victory in the nation's most populous state, where a 61 percent majority voted to bring the state's nation-leading drug imprisonment binge to a screeching halt. Now, with a resounding victory in California, the machine is shifting gears to emphasize "treatment not jail" initiatives over its previous favorites, medical marijuana and asset forfeiture reform.

Still, Zimmerman told DRCNet, that does not mean CNDP is leaving either issue behind. "We may support another asset forfeiture initiative if the conditions are right," said Zimmerman. "As for medical marijuana, this is something we will pursue on two levels. We will look at doing another medical marijuana initiative, but at the federal level, it is up to Congress to change the law. We have to be able to demonstrate that there is strong public demand for drug reform across the nation."

Such efforts will almost certainly meet with opposition from the law enforcement and drug court lobbies in their respective states. In an article announcing that Ohio was a possible target state, the Cleveland Plain Dealer was quickly able to find foes of "treatment not jail" reforms.

Stacey Frohnapfel, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, said an initiative patterned after California's, set to take effect July 1, would be "a step back for Ohio." Defending a rapidly expanding drug court system, she told the paper, "We would like to continue to grow the drug court system, which has resulted in cost savings and fewer jail days and less prison time." She added that drug users often need the threat of prison to clean up their acts.

Zimmerman told the Plain Dealer that isn't enough. "I think that there's a difference between making progress and a program actually working," he said. "If Ohio is still sending 3,000 people a year to prison for nonviolent drug use, then it's not working."


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