As medical marijuana advocates and others have found out, steering an initiative to victory in the voting booth is one thing; actually seeing it properly implemented is another. While California's Prop. 36 differs from the medical marijuana initiatives in that it does not face intractable opposition from the federal government, it does have entrenched foes who could attempt to sabotage it.
And, given California's national importance and the fact that Prop. 36 represents a ground-breaking departure from 20 years of lock 'em up drug policy, its success or failure will be of critical importance to the future of drug policy reform.
The Campaign for New Drug Policies (http://www.drugreform.org) scored a huge success at the polls, with some 61% of voters approving its Proposition 36, which will divert thousands of drug possession offenders from state prisons to drug treatment programs.
It did so in the face of stiff opposition from police, prosecutors, and drug court professionals, but now proponents of the new law will need the cooperation of these groups to make the program work.
Local prosecutors, for example, could refuse to plea-bargain more serious offenses or decline to prosecute cases under the act. County supervisors could allocate funds for probation instead of treatment programs. Police could bring stiffer charges.
"Officials in some counties have been calling this 'the doper initiative,'" Contra Costa county's head of treatment programs Chuck Deutschman told the Associated Press. "Obviously, if you're viewing it as the doper initiative, you're going to be less interested in treatment."
Questions have also arisen about when and where treatment programs for the estimated 36,000 persons who will need them will come.
CNDP's Dave Fratello acknowledged to the Associated Press that "this will be a real challenge to our friends in the treatment community. They are going to have the eyes of the world on them," he said. "They are going to be forced to prove that this works on a very large scale."
Other skeptics doubt that the $120 million budgeted by the act each year will cover the costs of drug tests, expanded county probation offices, and licensing new treatment facilities.
CNDP head Bill Zimmerman, who ran the Prop. 36 campaign, as well as the medical marijuana initiatives in California and six other states, remains undaunted. In a conversation with DRCNet, he predicted that "the bumps will be relatively small."
The effort has political cover now, Zimmerman argued. "No elected official wants to be on the wrong side of a 61% voter majority," he said.
Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who opposed the measure, is a case in point. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he said he and his staff will help to implement the measure.
"The people have spoken," Davis told the Chronicle.
Indeed, within days after the election, Davis filled the long-vacant position of head of the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, naming Kathryn Jett to the post (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/160.html#caldrugczar).
Jett, said Zimmerman, "has a history of being committed to treatment."
As for opposition from state and local officials, Zimmerman told DRCNet it would be less than expected.
"There may be some variation from county to county," he said, "but there are real incentives to implement the system. There are local treatment providers, probation officers, and drug court judges who want to see it work."
"There will always be bureaucrats with a stake in its implementation, sufficient forces working for it to overcome people who want to stand in the way," he continued.
Program supporters are making active efforts to bring in opponents, Zimmerman added. "For instance, we are sponsoring a conference bringing together opponents and proponents to establish an agenda all stakeholders can live with."
Once again noting the political power that comes with a clear electoral victory, Zimmerman noted that, "Many opponents are agreeing to participate in response to the decision of the voters."
And again, on the question of adequate funding, the election victory has altered the political equation.
Although Zimmerman indicated that CNDP's research showed $120 million annually would cover treatment, probation, and court costs, and cited a RAND Corporation study that agreed, he argued that getting more money if needed would not now pose a great problem.
"I think we can get additional funds to help facilitate implementation of the measure now because the political situation has changed very dramatically," he said. "Elected officials had been reluctant to fund drug reform measures in the past, but now we have a mandate from voters that they want treatment and not incarceration."
"This will give legislators in Sacramento much more backbone than in the past. Politicians follow public opinion and when they see a majority forming, their first impulse is to get out in front of the parade," continued Zimmerman. "Now you're seeing many who were formerly reluctant to support the measure coming around."
Coming up with the needed treatment programs will be a challenge Zimmerman conceded. "But the sentencing provisions don't take effect until July 1st. Between now and then we have $60 million appropriated."
"The 36,000 diverted from prison to treatment each year aren't coming in one clump," Zimmerman pointed out. "More like 3,000 a month will need treatment, and with the level of preparation we have, we should be able to have sufficient increased capacity."
The bottom line, said Zimmerman, was the power of the vote. "We control this issue now."