What a difference a few years make. Back in the early 1990s, the country
was determined to put criminals behind bars and throw away the key.
Politicians made great hay out of demands for mandatory minimums, the end
of "good time," and new "three-strikes-you're-out" legislation.
Rehabilitation was a dirty word and the penological community dismissed it
as a goal.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the dungeon. Americans may be
perfectly happy to see violent offenders put behind bars for extremely long
periods. But in state after state, the people are using the initiative
process to tell their government it has gone too far on drug crimes.

This November, voters in Ohio and the District of Columbia will decide
whether to divert certain nonviolent offenders charged with drug use or
possession -- not drug dealing -- into treatment rather than jail. The
initiatives are similar to Proposition 36, passed by California in 2000,
and one passed in Arizona in 1996.

These initiatives are gaining purchase as tight state budgets converge with
a backlash against abusive sentencing. The treatment programs save money
and help the very people who seem most redeemable. A study by the Arizona
Supreme Court in 1999 estimated the state has saved more than $6 million in
prison expenditures as a result of the initiative. And in California, while
the program is too new for much evaluation, a state corrections official
said the female prison population has dropped 5.3 percent in a year. When
women go to prison, it is typically for drug crimes.

Treatment for addicts isn't a new idea, but the fact that the general
population is clamoring for it over the traditional punitive approach of
lawmakers is a veritable sea change.

Maybe people have had it with the hypocrisy of politicians such as Florida
Gov. Jeb Bush, whose 25-year-old daughter Noelle is in residential drug
treatment after she was arrested in January on charges of falsifying a
prescription for the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. Any parent would want the
same for his or her adult child, but Bush appears unwilling to guarantee
the parents of other addicted daughters the same relief.

He has denounced a nascent initiative effort in Florida modeled after Prop.
36. Even though the initiative hasn't garnered anywhere near the signatures
needed to secure a spot on the 2004 ballot, his administration is already
engaged in a campaign to defeat it.

Another way the public is expressing its disgust over tyrannical drug laws
is through an initiative on the ballot in South Dakota that would alert
juries to their power to refuse to enforce unjust laws.

The issue was sparked by the case of Matthew Ducheneaux, who was convicted
of marijuana possession by a jury whose members later said how much they
regretted the verdict. Ducheneaux smokes marijuana to relieve the leg
spasms he suffers as a result of an automobile accident that left him a
quadriplegic. He wanted to tell jurors they could disregard the law and
acquit him based on the equities, but was barred from doing so.

If passed, the initiative would allow defendants to question a law's merits
and validity, reminding jurors of their inherent power to bring their own
sensibilities to bear.

Why are these issues going straight to the electorate, bypassing the
political branches? Because lawmakers have proven themselves utterly
unwilling to make rational judgments relative to drugs. Putting people like
Matthew Ducheneaux into the criminal justice system is absurd and cruel.
But it guarantees full employment for special interests such as law
enforcement, the courts, and all the ancillary businesses who serve them.

Fortunately, voters are not beholden to those interests. They understand
the waste in tax dollars and the cost in human misery associated with
nonsensical criminal laws. That's why, in the nine states, initiatives
legalizing medical marijuana have been approved.

Now if only George W. Bush, Drug Enforcement Administration Director Asa
Hutchinson and Attorney General John Ashcroft would get with the program.

Lately, this group has been on a tear, sending DEA agents on before-dawn
raids of California marijuana cooperatives to keep sick and dying people
from the marijuana they say helps relieve their pain. For all the Bush
administration's claimed fiscal conservatism, this is the height of
irresponsible spending.

The people have lapped the drug warriors. I bet if these raids were taken
to a national vote, Bush would lose by even more than half a million this time.

Pubdate: Sat, 05 Oct 2002
Source: Salt Lake Tribune (UT)
Copyright: 2002 The Salt Lake Tribune
Contact: letters@sltrib.com
Website: http://www.sltrib.com/