Margaret Dooley-Sammuli

Moms Unite to End the War on Drugs

This is an appeal to mothers who have seen first hand the devastation of the drug war.

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No Prison for Gore III?

Al Gore III, the 24-year-old son of the former vice-president, is facing more than three years in prison for simple drug possession following his arrest in Southern California earlier this month. Is he going to get special treatment? I hope not.

I hope Gore receives exactly what most nonviolent, low-level drug offenders in California do -- a chance at treatment instead of a record. Proposition 36, passed by 61 percent of voters in 2000, offers community-based treatment instead of incarceration to over 36,000 people each year. The Orange County district attorney will determine Gore's eligibility for the program in the next couple of weeks.

It is a tragedy when anyone enters the criminal justice system -- rather than the healthcare system -- because of their drug use. That's why a majority of California voters approved Proposition 36, changing state law so that people can address their drug problems without adding the trauma and stigma of incarceration.

Over 36,000 people -- famous and not -- benefit from Proposition 36 each year. Robert Downey Jr. is a Proposition 36 graduate. So is Alec Baldwin's brother Daniel, who told Larry King just last week that Proposition 36 intervened in his 18-year cocaine addiction and allowed him to access the treatment he needed to enter long-term recovery. He is now taking it one day at a time.

His story is similar to that of Rudy Mendez, a not-so-famous resident of San Diego, who entered Proposition 36 to treat his long-term addiction to heroin. He's now been sober for five years. Cynthia McDonald, another not-famous Proposition 36 grad from Southern California, thanks the law for her recovery from years of addiction to methamphetamine. She has been sober for nearly four years.

Daniel Baldwin, Rudy Mendez, Cynthia McDonald and thousands more Proposition 36 grads are now spokespeople for recovery, working with others to spread the news that "Recovery Happens!" and that one way to get there is Proposition 36. The positive impact they have had on the lives around them prove that, while addiction is not contagious, recovery can be.

Gore's arrest and Baldwin's interview come just as the California Senate considers cutting funding for Proposition 36 treatment in exchange for hefty tax breaks for large corporations. Squeezing the budget of this life-saving and cost-effective program is a slap in the face of California voters, and, worse, a direct assault on the quality of treatment that the state can provide Proposition 36 participants next year, perhaps including Gore.

In just six years, over 70,000 Californians have graduated from Proposition 36 treatment, and taxpayers have saved $1.8 billion. Gore could be one of 12,000 more people expected to graduate next year. If so, perhaps he'll become another spokesperson for treatment and alternatives to incarceration -- and be able to explain to Sacramento politicians just how outrageous it is to starve a program that saves money, reduces jail and prison overcrowding, and improves the lives of tens of thousands of real people each year.

Drug Sanity South of the Border

"Appallingly stupid" is how San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders jumped to describe the Mexican Senate's recent overwhelming approval of legislation that would, in a limited way, decriminalize the possession of small amounts of some drugs. Our city officials' knee-jerk condemnation of the bill, which District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said would send "addicts pouring onto our streets," was as predictable as it was disappointing.

Worse still was that Mexico's President Vicente Fox bowed to U.S. pressure and vetoed the legislation, which would have removed incentives for corruption and allowed law enforcement to focus their limited resources on organized and violent crime. When Mexico's legislature takes up the issue again in the fall, it should have the courage to continue drafting drug policies that are far more practical than our own.

Certainly, American and Mexican residents alike would be very concerned if, by some change of law, drugs suddenly became much more available to youth on either side of the border. But the Mexican legislation in question, which proposes to reduce (but not remove) criminal penalties for low-level drug possession, would not do that -- just as similar policies have not increased the availability of drugs in Western Europe and Canada.

Indeed, our own policies have proved much worse in this regard. Despite a $40-billion-a-year drug war, "controlled substances" are more available and cheaper than they have ever been -- in San Diego and around the United States. And, unlike alcohol, these drugs are as available to kids as to adults.

Because we enforce a drinking age on this side of the border, there is clear incentive for our youth to head south in search of alcohol (where the age limit of 18 is poorly enforced). No such incentives exist for marijuana or methamphetamine, nor would they had President Fox signed the bill this week. Why drive south and wait in line to cross the border, when you can already buy it at school or from a neighbor?

San Diego officials know how pervasive drugs are in this city, so it is disingenuous for them to oppose Mexico's legislation based on concerns about increased availability of drugs.

And yet no one is surprised that our mayor and district attorney, among others, rushed to condemn the Mexican bill last week. This is because Mexico's decision flies in the face of our national government's 30-year-old crusade to eradicate illegal drugs -- and does so very close to home. Drug war advocates say that reducing criminal penalties for possession of controlled substances is akin to admitting defeat. It sends the wrong message, they say.

But isn't it the right thing to do?

In the name of sending the right message, we have incarcerated millions of Americans over the last three decades. More people are in prison for drug charges in the United States than are incarcerated for all crimes in Western Europe, which has a larger total population. In California alone, the number of people incarcerated for drug possession quadrupled in the 12 years between 1988 and 2000, peaking at 20,116. And yet drug use remains stable.

Our fear of sending the wrong message is stopping us from implementing policies that would keep drugs away from youth and would better prevent and treat addiction. We must not be afraid to admit that drugs and drug addiction will never be eradicated. Instead, we must work toward reducing the harm that drugs cause. That means being more practical and perhaps being a little more like our neighbors to the south.