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Sentiment is changing about punishment in drug crimes

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© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

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 antianxiety drug Xanax? Any parent would want the same for their 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 regreted 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.

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