A New Front In The Drug War

California's voters may be in revolt again. The folks who have to foot the bill in the state with the highest ratio of imprisoned drug offenders in the country--134 per 100,000 people, compared with 49 in Texas--may have had enough. This fall they will vote on a sleeper ballot initiative, Proposition 36, that would effectively end jail terms for possessing any illegal drug--including crack cocaine and heroin--and substitute drug treatment instead. Last week Prop 36 was ahead by 10 points, and antidrug warriors were in an uproar. The real objective, they said, was a well-financed national movement that would stop short of nothing less than decriminalizing drug use.

Prop 36 is drawing supporters from across the ideological spectrum: from civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson to Republican Senate candidate Tom Campbell, who says the drug war amounts to "Jim Crow" justice for minorities. Financier George Soros and two other wealthy businessmen have pledged $3 million to push the cause. They are also financing antidrug-war initiatives in five other states. Soros, long a supporter of relaxing the drug laws, sees it as a "human rights" issue, according to former Princeton professor Ethan Nadleman, his principal adviser on the matter.

Prop 36 organizers sense they have tapped into more than California's quirkiness. Thanks to mandatory-sentencing laws enacted across the country in the 1980s, the prison population passed 2 million this year, up from 500,000 in 1980. Now the California initiative will challenge the idea that most Americans still back the massive crackdown. "Traditionally, you've got to be tough on drugs or you get marginalized [as a candidate]," says Campbell. "I'm putting that to the test."

But will Prop 36 do anything to solve the drug problem? Under Prop 36, offenders arrested for possession--not trafficking--are given the option of entering a treatment program for up to 18 months. If they completed it, their records would be wiped clean. That would allow about 24,000 people a year--those who are now incarcerated in California for possession--to stay out of prison. "This is a watershed," says Sam Vagenas, a consultant to the initiative's organizers. "It can blow apart the whole notion that the only way to get people off drugs is to incarcerate them."

Opponents are just as vehement. They are led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards' union, which has made building more prisons its signature issue. The union pumped more than $2 million into the 1998 campaign of Gov. Gray Davis, a tough-on-crime Democrat, who quickly signed legislation authorizing $525 million in new prison construction. Letting more drug users stay out will simply put more criminals on the streets, the prison guards and their allies argue. "By the time [users] come to us, they've got rap sheets as long as your arm," says Jeff Thompson, chief lobbyist for the guards.

Union officials have enlisted their own heavyweights to fight Prop 36: White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos and "West Wing" president Martin Sheen, whose son Charlie has struggled with addiction. The campaign will be heated and expensive; and both sides realize that Americans far beyond California will be watching.