|DRUGS AND POLITICS|
October 31, 2000
JIM JIM LEHRER: Another kind of election issue now, drugs and politics in California. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET, Los Angeles, reports.
JEFFREY KAYE: Call it the war against the war on drugs. California's Proposition 36 would effectively end jail terms for possession and personal use of illegal drugs, including marijuana and heroin. The campaign's manager is Bill Zimmerman. His political consulting firm has been coordinating campaign strategy for drug reform initiatives in several states.
BILL ZIMMERMAN: Proposition 36 carves out a population that almost everybody agrees should be treated rather than incarcerated: People who are arrested for the first or second time for simple drug possession, people who have committed no other crimes, have not been dealing drugs, and have no violent priors. We appropriate $120 million a year to give these people treatment, and we prevent them from being incarcerated. They must be treated.
JEFFREY KAYE: In the last four years, laws allowing for the medical use of marijuana have passed in eight states and the District of Columbia. On this year's November ballot, citizens in Colorado and Nevada will vote on the medical use of marijuana. Five other state ballots will contain proposals to reduce criminal penalties for drug convictions. Most of the funding for the ballot measures has come from three of the richest men in America: George Soros, an international financier and billionaire philanthropist based in New York; Peter Lewis of Ohio, head of Progressive Corporation, the nation's fifth largest auto insurer; and Arizonan John Sperling, an educational entrepreneur. Since 1996, the three have spent more than $9 million on drug reform initiatives. Sperling is founder of the nation's largest for-profit university, the University of Phoenix. A former humanities professor, he sees the drug war as a debacle, a domestic Vietnam War.
JOHN SPERLING: I got into that because for ten years I had been concerned with the impact of the drug war on our society. It is racist, it is expensive, it is ineffective, it is bad for our foreign policy. There is no redeeming quality to the war on drugs.
JEFFREY KAYE: The first victory for Sperling and his compatriots came in 1996, in his home state of Arizona-- a state known for its conservative law and order image.
SPOKESPERSON: So vote yes on Prop 200. It's a better way.
JEFFREY KAYE: Arizona's drug reform initiative bankrolled by Sperling, Lewis, and Soros, passed with a two-thirds majority. Proposition 200 mandates that first and second-time drug offenders go to treatment programs instead of jail.
SPOKESMAN: Prop 200 won against all odds or all predictions. Everyone thought we would fail, that it was far too aggressive.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Arizona law Sperling championed raised liquor taxes as a source of financing. In its first year, Prop 200 provided $2 million to drug education and treatment programs such as this one in mesa, Arizona.
SPOKESPERSON: Today, I am grateful for Prop 200-- and group. It's a good feeling. Yes, it's a good feeling to be clean and especially for someone who has every day done drugs for ten, 15 years.
JEFFREY KAYE: In addition to her counseling sessions-- a condition of probation-- Collyn Burleson, a 29-year-old recovering methamphetamine addict was placed in a halfway house. She says after years of drug abuse, she's now receiving the support she needs.
COLLYN BURLESON: Any time I feel weak, no matter where I am, I can come, spend the night, do my laundry. It doesn't matter. I can... I have a place to fall back on. I don't really plan on leaving after the first few months, though. I think that it's safe, and...
JEFFREY KAYE: And that's what you need-- safety and security.
COLLYN BURLESON: For now, yeah.
JEFFREY KAYE: Supporters of the Arizona law say it's pushed drug users into treatment and kept them out of jail. But opponents counter it's taken away an important therapeutic tool, the threat of incarceration. Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, the chief prosecutor in Phoenix, says convicted drug users need to know they'll go to jail if they don't get treatment.
RICHARD ROMLEY: We're not here to throw them in jail, but we need to have something holding over their heads, so that if they don't... if they don't comply with it, they know that there's a potential sanction.
JEFFREY KAYE: Critics of California's Proposition 36 make the same arguments.
JANE PFEIFER: The proponents would have you believe that it's about incarceration or jailing clients as opposed to treating them. And that is not it.
JEFFREY KAYE: Jane Pfeifer is with the campaign opposing the initiative. She is a drug court administrator in northern California.
JANE PFEIFER: We're hearing all the time from clients that is was that brief time in custody, and then they come back out into treatment, that allowed them to turn it around. And that was the turning point, not that it changed everything, but it allowed them to get focused and to get real about it.
JEFFREY KAYE: But the reality, argue Proposition 36 opponents, is that California's jails and prisons, like the rest of the nation's, are brimming with drug offenders, few of whom get little or any treatment.
SPOKESMAN: One out of every four prisoners on planet Earth is an American. That's a horrifying statistic, and it's driven entirely by the war on drugs. If Proposition 36 passes, 37,000 people a year-- every year-- will get treatment instead of incarceration. That's how many people are incarcerated by this state on a regular basis.
JEFFREY KAYE: In Arizona, they've heard the same arguments. Tales of small-time or first- time drug users sentenced to prison. Prosecutor Romley says the statistics have been exaggerated.
ROMLEY: We did a study. Not one first-time user was in prison. They all had prior felony offenses. They had all had charges pled down from much more serious offenses to a drug possession offense. There was not one.
JEFFREY KAYE: Romley is on a crusade to defeat drug reform initiatives. He helped produce a video distributed nationally, claiming that the backers of the propositions have a hidden agenda.
SPOKESMAN: The pattern seen here is only the beginning, yet presents a frightening look at the pro-drug lobby's true motive. These legalization campaigns are increasingly infecting our nation.
SPOKESMAN: These propositions I think are a Trojan horse. The real objective is legalization. You can see that clearly if you look at the year-by-year, changing of the propositions over time towards full legalization.
SPOKESMAN: None of us like drugs. What it is, is we don't like the drug policies that turn an addiction or a psychological problem into a criminal act.
JEFFREY KAYE: Do you want to go beyond what you've done in the states where....
SPOKESMAN: Yes, we want no incarcerations for drugs at all. Period.
JEFFREY KAYE: So would it be fair to say that your ultimate goal is decriminalization?
SPOKESMAN: No. We use the term medicalization. And if the medical community decided that decriminalization was the best way to deal with it, then we would support it.
JEFFREY KAYE: Looking to the future, Sperling and his allies hope that changes at the state level will influence federal policies, and ultimately force a cease-fire in America's drug war.