Efforts To Chip Away At Drug Laws Underway In Western States
By Sunny Kaplan, Staff Writer
New efforts have sprung up west of the Mississippi to loosen the reins on illegal drug use, or at least reconsider penalties for violators that are partly responsible for soaring correctional costs. The moves follow last year's approval in Alaska, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington of referenda authorizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Those involved in the latest efforts include a Microsoft millionaire, advocacy groups that have sought to legalize marijuana for years and New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.
In late June, Johnson created waves by declaring he wants decriminalizing drug use to be on the front burner of public debate. While he was not specific about which drugs he would consider reducing penalties for using or legalizing, his suggestion drew sharp criticism from New Mexico's congressional delegation and law enforcement officials. It is also at odds with the 1996 Republican platform, which called for stricter penalties for drug offenders.
The issue of drug use subsequently burst into the early rounds of the 2000 presidential race, when members of the news media and political foes began pressing Texas Gov. George W. Bush to confirm or deny that he experimented with cocaine in his youth.
While no one has produced evidence that Bush, the early frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, did any such thing, those who insist that he answer the question say the public should know if a man who would lead them broke a law that he has since punished others for violating.
New Mexico's Johnson argues that the nation's war on drugs has been "a miserable failure." He says changing laws on marijuana possession would be a logical "first step," since marijuana is considered less addictive than harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Johnson, who disclosed during his first campaign for governor in 1994 that he had smoked marijuana and tried cocaine on three occasions while in college and shortly thereafter, has agreed to headline a day-long conference in Washington D.C. on Oct. 5 called "Beyond Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century."
The conference is sponsored by the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, which has advocated legalizing drugs since its founding in 1977.
Johnson's efforts to get people to rethink the nation's drug laws parallels a political effort in Washington and Oregon. Buoyed by a $100,000 contribution from retired Microsoft millionaire Bruce McKinney, a group in Washington State is trying to put a measure on the ballot to legalize marijuana for recreational as well as medicinal purposes and regulate the sale of it.
Supporters of the so-called Washington Cannabis Tax Act need to garner 180,000 signatures by Dec. 31 in order to put the measure before voters in the November 2000 general election.
The Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp is sponsoring a similar initiative in Oregon with help from McKinney, who donated $10,000 to that effort this spring. So far, supporters there have gathered 14,000 of the 66,000 signatures required by July to put the question on Oregon's November 2000 ballot.
In California, meanwhile, pro-pot billboards like "Honk if You Inhale'' and "Stop Arresting Responsible Pot Smokers'' have gone up as part of a campaign to decriminalize marijuana use in that state. The Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is paying for the campaign, which began last week in San Francisco.
"Around 12 million adult Americans smoke pot regularly in their homes and still hold down demanding jobs, raise families and lead productive lives. We're calling on those individuals to send a message to the state and federal governments -- responsible marijuana use by adults is commonplace, safe and should be decriminalized," NORML Founder Keith Stroup said.
In last year's election, voters approved referenda okaying medical marijuana use in Alaska, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. California passed the first such initiative in 1996.
But state efforts to legalize marijuana for medicinal or recreational use don't change the fact that the drug is illegal under federal law. Marijuana is categorized by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, along with LSD, heroin and PCP. And the nation's drug czar is far from warming to drug legalization efforts.
"Proponents argue that legalization is a cure-all for our nation's drug problem. However the facts show that legislation is not a panacea but a poison. In reality, legalization would dramatically expand America's drug dependence, significantly increase the social costs of drug abuse, and put countless more innocent lives at risk," testified Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources in June.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more than 277,000 offenders were in prison for a drug law violation in 1997, which accounts for 21 percent of state prisoners and over 60 percent of federal prisoners. Last week the bureau reported that state correctional costs have shot up 83 percent in this decade.
Experts say the widespread jailing of non-violent drug offenders partly accounts for the staggering increase.