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    Bush opposes ballot measure in drug fight

    State officials call the proposed amendment an attempt to legalize drug use, while its backers say it would save millions of dollars in prison costs.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 11, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Even as his daughter seeks treatment for a drug problem, Gov. Jeb Bush is gearing up opposition to a ballot measure that would steer Florida's nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison.

    The proposed amendment to Florida's Constitution, called the Right to Treatment and Rehabilitation for Nonviolent Drug Offenses, hasn't yet made it through all the legal hurdles it needs to before it can appear before voters this fall.

    But the Bush administration is so concerned about the measure that state officials started holding strategy meetings last fall at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to figure out how to defeat it.

    The measure would give certain first- and second-time drug offenders the right to treatment.

    It wouldn't apply to people arrested for drug dealing or violent crime. In some cases, people who have histories of violence or drug dealing could get treatment instead of prison, as long as their conviction is at least 5 years old.

    Jim McDonough, Bush's drug czar, calls the proposal "the Right to Abuse Drugs in Florida." Bush says it would "cause confusion." And FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore calls it "de facto drug legalization."

    Dave Fratello, a political organizer from California who is pushing the Florida measure, says he is bewildered by the criticism. He contends the amendment will increase treatment and save Florida millions of dollars in prison costs.

    Florida's ballot measure is modeled after California's Proposition 36, which voters approved by a 61 percent margin in 2000. A similar measure passed in Arizona in 1996.

    The Florida amendment is part of an organized, nationwide push to undo some of America's hard-line drug laws. For the first time, America's War on Drugs has well-financed opposition.

    It's being bankrolled by three wealthy American businessmen: New York financier George Soros, Cleveland insurance executive Peter Lewis and John Sperling of Arizona, founder of the for-profit University of Phoenix. The three men have organized a political machine under an umbrella group called the Campaign for New Drug Policies. Ballot measures are being pushed this year in Florida, Ohio, and Michigan.

    The political campaigns haven't even officially begun, and already the two sides are sniping at each other.

    Proponents say the Bush administration has improperly used state employees and buildings to organize a campaign to defeat the amendment. "It makes your head spin to see that the government would have such an open partisan role in a political campaign," Fratello said.

    Florida election law bars state workers from political work in state buildings, but the courts have ruled that state employees aren't violating the law if they are working on a referendum, such as a constitutional amendment.

    Meanwhile, the amendment's opponents are attacking its backers.

    "They are the same proponents that have backed medical marijuana initiatives in many states, including Florida in 1998, and the same individuals that have been pursuing drug legalization and decriminalization efforts throughout the United States for several years," FDLE Commissioner Moore wrote in a letter he sent to all of Florida's police chiefs, sheriffs and state attorneys. "The FDLE believes this is yet another attempt to legalize drug use in Florida."

    Moore's letter included a draft "stump speech" against the amendment. He urged prosecutors and law enforcement officers to speak out against it.

    FDLE, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association and Operation PAR, a drug treatment center in St. Petersburg, have joined antidrug groups in opposing the amendment.

    Among other things, opponents worry the amendment would overwhelm the treatment system without providing the money to pay for it. Drug offenders could opt for treatment and not show up. Others might ask for treatment merely to avoid getting a criminal record.

    "One of our concerns is that this would clog up the treatment system with people who don't need treatment," said John Daigle of the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.

    Another worry is that the amendment would undermine Florida's 59 drug courts, which try to steer nonviolent drug offenders to treatment. Bush's 24-year-old daughter, Noelle, is in drug treatment and might end up in Tallahassee drug court. She was arrested in January on charges of impersonating a doctor to fraudulently get a prescription for Xanax, an antianxiety drug.

    In drug courts, judges make the ultimate decision on a drug offender's fate, with input from lawyers and counselors.

    Under the proposed amendment, a "qualified professional" would determine treatment, which would be capped at 18 months. Anyone who repeatedly failed treatment would return to court, where they could face prison time.

    "This would replace the drug court system with a virtually identical system," said Fratello, of the Campaign for New Drug Policies. "If a person fails out of treatment, they face the full weight of criminal law."

    In California, the law is still too new to evaluate. In Arizona, a 1999 review by the Arizona Supreme Court estimated that the state saved more than $6-million in prison costs by diverting offenders to treatment, which is funded with a tax on alcohol.

    "Some people like (the law) and some people don't," said Julie Dybas, who oversees the program for the Arizona Supreme Court. "Drug court judges don't like it because they think that jail is a vital part of drug court. If people say 'I'm not going to go to treatment,' the system doesn't have a lot of recourse. On the plus side, the prisons aren't as full and the state saves money by not sending people to prison."

    The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments on the ballot measure Dec. 10. Attorney General Bob Butterworth argued that it doesn't pass legal muster because the summary is misleading and violates a rule against multiple subjects. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether the measure can go on the Nov. 5 ballot.

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