An initiative that would allow some first- and second-time drug offenders to opt for drug treatment in lieu of a jail or prison sentence will go before District of Columbia voters this November. The DC Board of Elections and Ethics has ratified the petitions gathered and then turned in on July 8, finding among the more than 40,000 signatures gathered there thousands more valid signatures than the 17,000 required. The "Treatment Instead of Jail for Certain Non-Violent Drug Offenders Initiative of 2002," known as Question 62 on the ballot, will give DC voters the chance to begin to reverse decades of policies that have decimated the capital's neighborhoods.
The initiative campaign is a joint effort of the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org) and the Campaign for New Drug Policies (http://drugreform.org), which have formed a locally-based group, the DC Campaign for New Drug Policies, to orchestrate the effort. CNDP and DPA have built an impressive record, winning 12 of 13 campaigns across the country with carefully crafted and narrowly focused initiatives on medical marijuana, asset forfeiture and "treatment not jail."
Measure 62 reflects the cautious approach of its parent organizations, limiting the treatment option to nonviolent, first- or second-time drug users or possessors, but notably excluding those who possess Schedule I drugs, which include marijuana, heroin, LSD, and ecstasy -- a fact that the Campaign attributes to pragmatism in the face of congressional drug war demagoguery, but one that leaves some drug reformers less than thrilled.
"We didn't want to go to the people with a bill that Congress opposed on the face of it," said Opio Sokoni, outreach coordinator for Measure 62. "We've drafted our law specifically to conform to Congress' concerns. We didn't want to craft a bill that could get passed but not implemented. It's hard to get people to the table if it looks like we are just making a statement here," Sokoni told DRCNet.
Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) questioned the efficacy of a treatment initiative that excludes Schedule I drugs. "I understand they're trying to make some accommodations for Capitol Hill," he told the Washington City Paper last month. "On the other hand, it does seem a little selective to say, 'We're gonna switch from a criminal response to nonviolent drug use to a treatment mode, but for marijuana, we're going to continue to arrest you.'"
"Marijuana smokers don't go to jail in the District," argued Sokoni, quickly adding that the DC Campaign supported medical marijuana and believed that marijuana was incorrectly scheduled as a drug with no medical uses.
Stroup agreed that marijuana users don't do much if any time in the District, but argued that arrests can still disrupt their lives. While most marijuana smokers aren't sick and don't need treatment, said Stroup, some might choose to go through the rehabilitation process rather than fight in court -- and they should have that choice. "Clearly, it's a step forward if we stop jailing some people and start getting them treatment," Stroup said. "But most illicit drug users don't use cocaine and amphetamines -- they smoke marijuana. So in some ways, it seems to me, Measure 62 is ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
While DC marijuana smokers are not likely to do serious time, the District's sizeable population of heroin users are also excluded. But, Sokoni said, there are provisions for them in the bill. Under the bill's language, anyone arrested for heroin possession who can show a history of opiate dependence "shall be assessed by a qualified treatment professional trained in the use of narcotics replacement therapy, including methadone maintenance treatment, and where medically appropriate, and upon the consent of the offender, shall be provided with narcotic replacement therapy, including methadone maintenance treatment, in addition to the sentence imposed."
"With Measure 62, we're going to be doing something real about crime, we're going to be enhancing the public safety," argued Sokoni. "This is about addicts getting access to treatment," he said. "We have 60,000 people in this city who need drug treatment, and only 10,000 are getting it. And imprisoning drug users is a bad gift that keeps on giving. Here in DC, when you go to prison, they send you to Ohio or someplace like that, your children go into foster care, your family is hundreds of miles away," said Sokoni. "You come out and maybe you're not so nonviolent anymore. People are not better people because of all that incarceration offers," he said.
Measure 62 would address the broader context of drug addiction, said Sokoni. "These people will get drug treatment for a year, and six months of aftercare, after which they can petition to get their records expunged," he explained. "But we define treatment very broadly, to include family counseling, GED programs, anger management, job training. We need to educate people to succeed in society."
While there are no poll numbers to cite, Sokoni told DRCNet he was "cautiously optimistic" the measure would pass. "People support Measure 62 because the status quo is not working," he said. There is no organized opposition, Sokoni said, but the campaign is taking no chances. "We've been talking to city officials, we've been talking to the churches, there is nobody in DC who wants to say that we don't need treatment," he said, "and we are building an advisory committee to address issues of implementation and funding."
For DC voters, passing the initiative will be only the first step. Then they have to turn to Congress and the likes of Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), bête noire of marijuana reformers in the District, to fund the District's programs. "A major part of successful implementation will mean going in and shaking the money loose," said Sokoni. "Funding is the key," he added, "but we have a bunch of very smart people working on this."