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California, four others soften drug laws; nation next?

By Don Thompson Associated Press Writer
Thursday November 09, 2000


SAN FRANCISCO — The three billionaires whose money helped persuade voters in California and four other states to soften drug laws now plan to take their case nationwide. 

“Politics is perception, and the perception up to this point is that voters want tougher and tougher drug policies,” said Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies. “The votes we saw (Tuesday) night represent a sea change in that perception.” 

California decided to send thousands of first- and second-time drug users to community treatment programs instead of prison or jail. Colorado and Nevada approved using marijuana for medical purposes, and Oregon and Utah restricted government seizures of drug offenders’ property. 

“It shows that the war on drugs is slowly being strangled and eventually the federal politicians are going to have to face up to their 20-year failure,” University of Phoenix founder John Sperling said Wednesday. “How do you get a mule’s attention? You have to slam them over the head with a two-by-four.” 

Sperling, along with New York philanthropist George Soros and Ohio insurance executive Peter Lewis, have spent millions the last four years backing ballot initiatives they say collectively amount to a referendum on the drug war. Their successes include previous medical marijuana laws in Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine, Oregon and Washington. 

Two states — Massachusetts and Alaska — rejected more sweeping drug initiatives. But opponents fear that the billionaires’ deep pockets will allow them to engineer more successes in elections to come. 

“I think the initiative process is becoming dangerous,” said Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, which advocates a zero-tolerance approach to drugs. “The very wealthy who have the money to do it are buying public policy all over the country.” 

The drug war itself was not on the ballot in any state, stressed Fay, who accused the billionaires of campaigning through misinformation. 

“I don’t think that the voters perceive that they’re voting to end the drug war. I don’t think the voters perceive that they are voting for drug legalization. They don’t see the big picture,” she said. 

But proponents say Tuesday’s votes were all about the drug war — which voters are beginning to perceive as a failure. 

“It’s really about changing the tenor of the debate,” said Ethan Nadelmann, Soros’ drug policy adviser and executive director of the Lindesmith Center in New York and San Francisco. “We’re slowly moving from the fringes into the mainstream.” 

Now it’s time to connect the dots between the states that have approved drug law changes, and proponents may focus next on Middle America. 

“Michigan and Ohio are probably the places where you have the largest number of people affected, and you would send the loudest message — and they have the initiative process,” said Dave Fratello, campaign manager for the California initiative. 

Nadelmann suggested Florida may be ripe for a measure similar to that approved by California voters Tuesday. 

California’s Proposition 36 will require treatment instead of prison or jail for an estimated 36,000 California drug users who are convicted each year of drug possession or use for the first or second time. 

California’s law enforcement establishment was overwhelmingly opposed to the change, and drug treatment providers generally supported it. 

Both sides agree on one point: treatment centers will be overwhelmed, at least initially. 

But Zimmerman and Nadelmann already hope to use California’s experience to prove to the rest of the nation that treatment works. 

California voters’ decision is particularly significant not only because it is the most populous state, but because it led the way in jailing drug users two decades ago, and now jails more drug offenders per capita than any other state. 

The three philanthropists spent $1.2 million each on the California initiative alone. 

Nadelmann said the three contributed a combined $6 million to $7 million toward changing the nation’s drug policies during the 1997-98 election cycle, roughly the same amount during the last two years, and he expects them to give a like amount over the next two years.