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In yet another indication that the ground is shifting on drug policy, longtime Washington state drug warriors are moving to cut prison sentences for drug sellers. They are admittedly acting to fend off a nascent citizens' initiative modeled on California's Prop. 36, which diverts nonviolent drug law violators from prison into treatment programs.

"Law and order" conservatives led by King County (Seattle) Prosecutor Norm Maleng joined forces with legislative liberals in touting bills they said would save the state millions of dollars in prison costs by expanding mandatory drug treatment. Meanwhile, a state sentencing commission is studying the issue and is expected to recommend similar reforms, as is the King County Bar Association.

But with drug reformers breathing down their necks, even the hardliners want to act now.

"It is time to move our drug policy in a new direction... to renew a commitment to treatment," Maleng told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I believe we can have a drug policy that is more effective, more balanced and more fair."

The plan pushed by Maleng, a prominent Republican, was introduced in the state Senate by a Democrat, Julia Patterson (Seattle-Tacoma). SB 5419 would cut six months from sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug sellers, who currently serve 21- to 27-month sentences. It would also cut sentences for four-time drug offenders, dropping them from a mandatory minimum 10 years to a 31- to 41-month range.

The bill and a similar bill in the House would use the savings from reduced prison costs to create a drug treatment fund administered by the state Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. The bills' authors estimate the state would transfer $2.5 million from prisons to treatment next year, with the annual appropriation increasing over the years to $16 million in 2006.

The turnaround comes after more than a decade of get-tough drug policies engineered by Prosecutor Maleng, among others. As a result, the number of Washington drug prisoners has increased 15-fold in the last 15 years, driven in large part by 1989 legislation that doubled prison sentences for drug offenses. About 3,000 people -- 22% of the total prison population -- are currently serving time on drug charges in the state.

At house committee hearings on Monday, Maleng was joined by such state criminal justice heavyweights as Corrections Secretary Joseph Lehman, Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge and King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Brian Gain in calling for the sentence reductions. Legislators also heard testimony from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which reviewed 71 drug-treatment studies and concluded that drug treatment could reduce criminal recidivism rates and save the state $2 for each $1 spent.

While the bills appear likely to pass, they are not nearly enough for local drug reformers, who are already organizing and gaining funding for a California-style initiative. The Seattle Times reported that the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is receiving funding from George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier who has poured millions into drug reform efforts. Gerald Sheehan of the Washington ACLU (http://www.aclu-wa.org/ ) told legislators his group would attempt to block the bills, saying they rely too heavily on imprisonment and would not adequately fund drug treatment.

Maleng is trying to deflate the momentum for a deeper reform, Sheehan told the Times. "Norm is just seeking to keep control of the thing," he said. "But he and others are way behind the national curve on this thing."

Sheehan isn't the only drug reform veteran gearing up for a possible initiative. Rob Killian, the Seattle physician who organized a 1998 initiative that legalized the use of medical marijuana in Washington state, told the Seattle Times reforms needed to be much deeper if legislators hoped to avoid a grassroots initiative. When he was asked if the money was there, he told the paper: "There are lots of people interested in seeing an initiative like this funded."

In an interview with the Post-Intelligencer, Seattle attorney Dan Merkle, another initiative advocate, said he could not help but agree when Maleng told lawmakers the system was out of balance, but Maleng's proposals were too little too late. But aside from treatment funding levels and sentencing adjustments, Merkle raised more pointed criticisms.

The bills' premise that "the criminal justice system should use its coercive authority to force offenders into treatment" is cause for concern, Merkle said. He told the Post-Intelligencer that the object of the proposal "is to maintain and increase the control of law enforcement over the drug war."

The drug war continues in Washington state, but now the drug warriors are playing defense.

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Issue #174, 2/23/01 New Report Rakes Clinton on Imprisonment | The Coca-Go-Round: Peruvian Production Starts to Increase as Spraying Destroys Colombian Fields | Washington State Hardliners Pitch Kindler, Gentler Drug War in Bid to Preempt Deeper Reforms | New Mexico: Update on Gov. Johnson's Drug Reform Package | Feds vs. Bongs: Heads Up for Head Shops | Newsbrief: American Pilots in Firefight With Colombian Rebels | Marijuana Has Less Adverse Effect on Driving Than Alcohol, Tiredness, UK Study Says | Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative Legal Briefs Online | An Invitation to Help Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws | | Erratum: Three Strikes Clarification | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: The Peace Process
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