Drug reformers fared better than either Presidential candidate in last November’s elections as Californians voted 61-39% to approve Prop. 36, requiring treatment instead of prison for most drug possession offenses, while Mendocino County voters approved Measure G to allow personal use cultivation of marijuana by 58-42%. However, President-elect George Bush has given no indication of heeding the voters’ mandate , appointing a hard-core drug warrior, ex-Sen. John Ashcroft, as Attorney General..
Political observers were stunned by the overwhelming victory of Prop 36, which is viewed as a revolution in drug policy. Under Prop 36, first- and second-time drug possession offenders can choose treatment instead of prison so long as they are not charged with other offenses. Defendants who successfully complete treatment are eligible to have charges dismissed.
“This is a powerful rejection of the drug war as we know it,” said Prop. 36 spokesman Dave Fratello. Prop 36 was solidly opposed by the state’s law enforcement establishment, who claimed that it effectively decriminalizes drugs.
Meanwhile, Mendocino County attracted nationwide attention by becoming the first community in the U.S. to approve personal use cultivation of marijuana. Measure G, which was sponsored by the Mendocino Green Party with support from California NORML, calls on county officials not to arrest or prosecute individuals for personal possession or cultivation of up to 25 plants.
Supporters regard Measure G as an important symbolic victory, but warn that it lacks legal force, because counties can’t override state marijuana laws. Like previous local pro-pot initiatives, it calls on authorities to make marijuana enforcement “lowest priority.”
“This is a political statement,” said former Congressman and leading Measure G backer Dan Hamburg. “Measure G says this war has wasted lots of money, wasted lots of lives, and the whole logic behind pot being illegal is ridiculous and false.”
Measure G attracted no organized opposition. Both the District Attorney, Norm Vroman, and the Sheriff, Tony Craver, have advocated complete decriminalization of adult personal use. Sheriff Craver signed the petition to put Measure G on the ballot but ended up opposing it on the grounds that it would falsely instill hopes that the law has changed.
“There are people when we catch them they’re going to give that ‘Why are you guys doing this to us’ line,” Craver said, “I’m worried about the frustration and heartaches it’s going to cause.”
The impact of Measure G will probably not be known until the summer, when the outdoor growing season begins.
In the meantime, state officials are scrambling to come to terms with Prop. 36, which does not take effect until July 1st. While the initiative appropriates $120 million per year for drug treatment programs, many officials say additional funding will be necessary for probation services and drug testing, which are not funded in the initiative.
One immediate effect of Prop 36 was to inspire Gov. Gray Davis to appoint Kathryn Jett as director of the state’s Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, which is charged with implementing the law. The post had been vacant for two years, leaving the department under the control of Wilson holdovers, who suppressed studies showing that Prop. 215 had not increased teen drug abuse in California.
In other state elections, medical marijuana initiatives were approved in Colorado (54-46%) and Nevada (65-35%), while asset forfeiture reform measures were approved in Oregon ( 66%) and Utah (69%). Voters in Massachusetts narrowly turned down a Prop-36-style initiative that would have applied to small-scale dealers (47-53%).
Alaska voters turned down an ambitious legalization initiative, Measure 5, which suffered because of flawed language. Among other problems, Measure 5 set the legal age for cannabis at 18 and provided for release and compensation of prisoners. Despite this, Measure 5 scored 39% of the vote, the most ever for a non-medical statewide marijuana initiative.
Despite their electoral gains, drug reformers are bracing for tough sledding under the minority presidency of Bush the younger, whose appointments hearken back to the tough-on-drugs reign of his father.
Reformers are especially outraged by the choice of former Sen. John Ashcroft for Attorney General. A teetotaling, anti-choice, prohibitionist who advocates legislating morality, Ashcroft has been an ardent drug warrior and opponent of civil liberties. In the last Congress, he sponsored the infamous anti-methamphetamine bill that contained provisions to censor drug-related speech on the Internet – a proposal which was eventually shot down thanks to strong opposition from civil libertarians.
Drug reformers are also worried by rumors that Bush will appoint former Rep. Bill McCollum as Drug Czar. Mc Collum, who like Ashcroft was defeated in the past election, was the leading drug hawk on the House Judiciary Committee. He was an outspoken proponent of tough mandatory minimums and the use of fungicides against illegal drug crops, and an opponent of state medical marijuana laws.
While Bush has never denied reports that he committed cocaine felonies in his misspent youth, he has taken steps to insure a drug-free inaugural. Musicians invited to his inaugural celebration have been asked by the Secret Service to sign statements disclaiming the use of illegal drugs.