IN THEIR overwhelming support for Proposition 36 in 2000, California voters
made it clear that they endorse treatment and rehabilitation -- not
punishment -- for people who use drugs.

Yet, California remains one of 21 states that impose a lifetime ban on
receiving welfare benefits and food stamps for persons convicted of felony
drug charges, an egregious punitive attack against persons with a drug problem.

In its new report, the Sentencing Project estimates that about 38,000 women
in California, out of a total of 92,000 women, will never be eligible for
welfare benefits through a little noticed provision in the 1996 Welfare
Reform law that prohibits persons with drug felony convictions after August
1996 from receiving welfare benefits and food stamps.

Although 29 states and the District of Columbia have opted out or modified
the welfare felony drug ban, as permitted by law, California continues to
fully enforce the ban. The state Legislature has twice passed bills to
provide women recovering from drug addiction the resources necessary to
rebuild their families. But Gov. Gray Davis vetoed both bills.

This ban in California not only harms individuals trying to recover from
drug addiction, but also punishes their families, including an estimated
56, 000 children. Supporters of the ban erroneously claimed that it only
affects the convicted individual, but the reality is that it drastically
reduces the resources available to the family for such necessities as food,
clothing and shelter.

Such financial constraints impose an almost insurmountable barrier for
women trying to keep their families together.

Women of color are disparately impacted by this ban. As a result of racist
drug policies, including mandatory minimum sentences and the focus on
enforcement in inner-city communities, women of color represent the fastest
growing segment of the prison population although drug use is approximately
equal across races. Consequently, nearly half of the women affected by the
felony drug ban in California are African Americans or Latinas.

California's hard-line stance is especially troubling because it imperils
the success of Proposition 36, which offers treatment rather than jail for
nonviolent drug offenses. It is very difficult to end drug addiction, and
it is even harder without transitional financial assistance.

According to the Sentencing Project, "Drug treatment staff report that cash
assistance and food stamps are critical for the successful recovery of
low-income women because women who try to maintain employment in the early
phases of recovery are likely to relapse and quit or lose their job."

To respect the will of California voters, state Assemblymember Carl
Washington, D-Paramount, has recently introduced AB1947 to ensure that
Proposition 36 participants continue to receive benefits, which are
critical to the successful completion of treatment and maintaining family
unity.

The measure is an important first step in eliminating discriminatory
treatment for drug users. But it is only a first step.

There are many more that need to be taken before the United States supports
persons in recovery from drug addiction and has a drug policy based upon
science, compassion, public health and human rights, not fear and prejudice.

In addition to denying critical welfare benefits, there is a whole spectrum
of punitive policies that face persons with drug convictions that continue
long after completion of the prison sentence, probation, or parole.

For example, "one strike" housing laws deny public housing and assistance
programs based upon drug history. The Higher Education Act suspends or
denies eligibility for grants, loans or work assistance for students
convicted of drug-related offenses.

Those impacted by these provisions are primarily nonviolent offenders
caught in the cross fire of the war on drugs. To effectively address drug
abuse, we must provide men, women and families with the resources to reduce
the harms associated with drug abuse, not erect additional obstacles to
punish and prevent them from becoming active, functioning members of society.

To start, we need to opt out of the drug felony welfare ban.


Newshawk: Dale Gieringer
Pubdate: Thu, 21 Mar 2002
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Website: http://www.sfgate.com/chronicle/
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Contact: letters@sfchronicle.com
Copyright: 2002 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Judith Appel, Robin Levi
Note: Judy Appel is deputy director of legal affairs at the Drug Policy
Alliance. Robin Levi is a consulting attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.