Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Cracking the Monolith

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, December 12, 2000 --  

When the dust settles from the heavily contested presidential contest, Americans will find that the most drastic changes brought by the 2000 election have nothing to do with their new chief executive. Far more important than who controls the White House is the effect of successful ballot initiatives that signal the beginning of the end for the terribly destructive war on drugs.

The most striking development took place in California, where voters widely approved a proposition eliminating prison sentences for first and second-offense nonviolent drug offenders.1 Other anti-drug war legislation was approved across the West. In Colorado and Nevada, voters approved laws legalizing medical marijuana.2 In Utah and Oregon, voters passed laws to inhibit police from permanently keeping private property seized while enforcing drug laws.3

To appreciate the importance of these victories, it helps to reflect upon the climate that has existed since President Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1970. For thirty years, mainstream American politicians have paid homage this prohibitionist policy, despite ample evidence of its destructive effects. To question the war on drugs has been so politically unacceptable as to equate a breach of patriotism. Timid legislators, however informed, have largely shown themselves unwilling to stand up to pro-drug war constituents.

The ballot initiative works well in exactly this kind of scenario. Starting four years ago, states began passing medical marijuana laws largely by referendum. Before November, California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Maine, and Washington D.C. had passed such laws.4 The success of these efforts -- despite their modest policy benefits -- proved that the ballot initiative had the power to end the drug war. Emboldened by these victories, a group of wealthy philanthropists led by billionaire George Soros financed this year's initiatives. All passed, except a narrowly-defeated Massachusetts proposal similar to but more far-reaching than California's Proposition 36.5

The cracks that now appear in America's drug policy monolith have hardly been noticed by the public, due to the dominance of the presidential contest in the press. This may be for the best. Some Americans are so irrationally opposed to change in drug laws, that they will use any legal means available to maintain the status quo. Their distraction may help to keep implementation of California's law on track and out of the courts.

When Proposition 36 is implemented on July 1, people caught possessing or using illegal drugs -- without additional evidence of manufacturing or selling them -- will not be subject to jail sentences, provided that they were not engaging in violent activity, and agree to submit to drug treatment.6 California's Legislative Analysis Office -- a nonpartisan agency similar to the Congressional Budget Office -- estimates that 36,000 fewer inmates will be sent to state and county jails each year as a result of the law, and it will save taxpayers $100-$150 million annually.7

But this is not only an issue of saving taxpayers money. Far more important is the chance to reduce some of the terrible side effects of the drug war. The laundry list of drug-war-related atrocities is far too long to mention here. Generally, however, America's drug policy has led to a severe erosion of civil liberties, created frightening incarceration rates, exacerbated drug violence, and destabilized drug-producing and transshipment countries.

Unfortunately, drug enforcement efforts at the national level appear stronger and more intrusive than ever. Not four months ago, Congress and the President approved a $1.3 billion military aid package to combat drug production in Colombia.8 And despite President Clinton's recent statement to Rolling Stone magazine that "possession of small amounts of marijuana" should be decriminalized9, federal prosecutors continue to pursue those who distribute pot for medical purposes.10

As long as cracks remain at the state level, however, the feds' drug war is doomed to eventual collapse. For years, zealots have succeeded in frightening localities away from reforms by exaggerating the dangers of changing course. Now that limited local reforms are in place, and the sky hasn't fallen, it will be ever more difficult to make the case not to try new tactics.


  1. The New York Times, California Gets Set to Shift on Sentencing Drug Users, November 10, 2000
  2. The Economist, Pot and Vouchers, November 9, 2000.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Washington Post, High Court to Hear Medical Marijuana Case, November 28, 2000
  5. WCVB-TV, Massachusetts Ballot Question Results, November, 2000
  6. Legislative Analysts Office, Analysis of Proposition 36, 2000
  7. Ibid.
  8. The Washington Post, Clinton Clears Aid Package for Colombia, August 23, 2000
  9. The New York Times, Clinton Says He Felt Pushed Into Gay Policy, December 7, 2000
  10. The Washington Post, High Court to Hear Medical Marijuana Case, November 28, 2000