Election Yields Largest-Ever Repudiation of Nation's War on Drugs
On Tuesday, November 7, millions of Americans sent a clear message that they have lost faith in the nation's war on drugs. In five out of six states where drug policy issues were on the ballot, voters decided in favor of major change regarding treatment instead of prison for non-violent offenders; medical marijuana for patients when recommended by a doctor; and civil asset forfeiture law reform.
"The public is way ahead of the politicians when it comes to embracing sensible drug polices," said Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of The Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation. "Americans are tired of wasting billions of dollars on a drug war that is not working, especially when clear, pragmatic alternatives exist."
Proposition 36 in California is the most significant drug policy reform passed to date. It was endorsed on Tuesday by 61% of voters in California - a higher percentage than Al Gore received in the state. According to a California Legislative Analyst report, this initiative could result in up to 24,000 nonviolent offenders and 12,000 parole violators being diverted to drug treatment instead of jail every year, saving taxpayers more than $200 million.
"The net impact of Proposition 36 in California may well exceed the impact of drug courts throughout the entire country," said Nadelmann.
Proposition 36 allocates $120 million per year for a wide range of drug treatment options, including job and literacy training, and family counseling.
"This is the single most significant reversal in the trend towards incarcerating drug users," said Bill Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies, which coordinated the six drug policy initiative campaigns this year. "Hopefully California will be the first of many states to pass this common sense drug policy."
In Nevada and Colorado, voters passed initiatives to make marijuana legally available for medical purposes. A confidential registry will be created in each of these states for patients with certain illnesses to receive credentials immunizing them from marijuana possession and cultivation laws.
Nevada and Colorado now join six other states which have also made marijuana available for medical purposes, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine, Oregon and Washington, plus the District of Columbia. (Hawaii passed a similar measure through the legislative process this year.) Patients in these states are now using marijuana with the full cooperation of state officials, despite periodic attempts by the federal government to interfere. Ample evidence now exists that proves marijuana's medicinal benefits to patients with AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis, among other diseases.
"Despite the overwhelming will of the people and the ample evidence proving marijuana's medicinal benefits, the federal government refuses to budge on this issue," said Zimmerman. "This is just one reason people feel the drug war has gone too far."
In Oregon and Utah, voters overwhelmingly approved ballot initiatives to curtail the asset forfeiture abuses by police and prosecutors. Many innocent citizens, never convicted or even accused of crimes, have been victimized by seizures based solely on the suspicions of law enforcement officers. Now, however, based on the new initiatives, police and prosecutors will be required to prove by clear and convincing evidence that seized property was in fact involved in a crime.
Moreover, whereas seized assets were previously retained by law enforcement agents - with predictably distorting consequences on their priorities and motivations - the new measures require that proceeds go to public education or drug treatment.
In Massachusetts, a hybrid initiative with asset forfeiture reform and treatment components that included benefits for low-level drug dealers narrowly lost after police and prosecutors with a vested interest in the status quo were successful in spreading misinformation about the initiative and confusing voters.
Since 1996, 17 out of 19 initiatives and referendums have passed around the country in favor of drug policy reform. According to Nadelmann -- who also serves as the principal advisor to philanthropist George Soros on drug policy issues -- more are sure to follow.
"The future of drug policy reform over the next few years will be at the state and local levels, where people are searching for pragmatic solutions to local drug problems," said Nadelmann. "The White House and the new Congress should stay tuned."