Kansas City Drug Fighting Tax Encounters Organized Opposition 8/1/03

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Jackson County, Missouri, which includes Kansas City and its suburbs, is the home of the nation's only local sales tax specifically dedicated to fighting the drug war. The Community Backed Anti-Drug Tax, or COMBAT, raises between $18 million and $20 million each year, with the funds collected going to treatment programs, a drug court program and law enforcement. First approved in 1989, voters renewed the tax in 1995, and it is up for a vote again on August 5.

The tax is supported by a formidable coalition of law enforcement, prosecutors, treatment providers, the Kansas City Council, and the city's only newspaper, the Kansas City Star, which editorialized in favor of it Tuesday. Supporters of the tax argue that the drug court it supports has a 90% success rate, that it has enabled the teaching of the DARE anti-drug education program in school districts throughout the county, and that it has helped reduce drug abuse in the area.

But not everyone is buying that. Two distinct groups came out last week in the first organized opposition to the COMBAT tax. Jackson County Taxpayers, a fiscally conservative group, attacked the tax as a waste of taxpayer money, and a group actually called Organized Opposition to the Jackson County Anti-Drug Tax sees the tax as an extension of a drug war it does not support.

"The reason we're against this is simple: It doesn't work," said Robert Gough, director of Jackson County Taxpayers. "We're the only county in the United States with a drug tax and we've spent a quarter-billion dollars in 14 years. You would think Jackson County would shine, but it's not particularly drug free," he told DRCNet. "Law enforcement loves it, of course; they say 'hallelujah, it's working,' but all this lock-'em-up stuff isn't working. It also funds D.A.R.E., and many people think of it as the D.A.R.E. tax, but D.A.R.E. doesn't work either. There isn't a single study that shows D.A.R.E. grads were any more drug free than other kids. D.A.R.E. is nothing more than police officers doing behavior modification therapy on our children."

The Organized Opposition to the Jackson County Anti-Drug Tax is more directly against existing drug policies. "Our opposition to this tax is a critique of the drug war, yes, but the drug war isn't on the ballot," said Robert Tolbert, one of the founders of what he described as an ad hoc coalition of black community residents, university students and drug reformers. "The drug war should be on the ballot -- it is a war directed at the black community and young people," he told DRCNet.

The group's name is a jab at local powers that be, said Tolbert. "This is a one newspaper town," he explained, "and the Kansas City Star has the bad habit of supporting these tax votes and saying there is no organized opposition. What they really mean is there is no opposition with a bunch of money. Well, we don't have a bunch of money, but we are the opposition and we are organized, and our name is a deliberate poke in the eye to the Star."

Tolbert agreed with Gough's critique of D.A.R.E., then launched into a blistering attack on the much lauded drug courts. "They claim a 90% success rate with the drug court," he said, "but anytime you hear numbers like that your bullshit detector should be going off. I looked into this and what I found was that they cherry pick. They only take first-time offenders, who are probably the most reachable. The real hard cases, the crack-heads and serious junkies, don't get in because they usually have criminal records already. These are bogus statistics," he said.

COMBAT proponents have argued that the money has helped close down 7,200 "drug houses" and take $300 million worth of "narcotics" off the streets, but such numbers don't impress Gough. "I'm happy for them if that is true," he said, "but if this is such a great program, why don't the state and the county fund it? Why do we need a dedicated tax for this?"

Neither Gough nor Tolbert are optimistic that they will prevail next week, given that they have received little money to campaign with and less attention from the local media. "We're the little guys," said Tolbert. "I don't think we can win this time, but I am getting a better response than last time in 1995. It is not publicly acceptable to be against the war on drugs, but I sense a growing subterranean opposition. I think we'll get better numbers than have been predicted."

"I'm realistic," said Gough about the chances of defeating the tax. "The people who think for us all enthusiastically support it. We're up against the Star, the politicians, the treatment providers who get funded out of this, the labor unions, and law enforcement."

Whether they can pull it off this time or not, both Gough and Tolbert are finding they can work with strange bedfellows. "We had a meeting Sunday night and there were students and drug reformers and people from the black community. Most of them were pretty well on the left," said Gough. "They called the drug war Reagan's war, they said it was anti-black and anti-poor people. I told them I'm one of the Reagan guys, and I oppose this."

"It takes all kinds," said Tolbert.

And maybe they're not as different as they think. Gough, the white, suburban Republican, delivered a strong attack on the marijuana laws. "A joint in your pocket during a traffic stop could get your kids taken away and you thrown in jail. I don't think that is an appropriate response to a marijuana cigarette." And Tolbert, the black, inner city activist, agrees. "Yes, we ought to legalize marijuana. I think we could actually pass that if we got it on the ballot here."

Look for election results in the Week Online next week.

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Issue #298, 8/1/03 Kansas City Drug Fighting Tax Encounters Organized Opposition | Prison Population Increase Accelerates, Up 2.6% Last Year | Brazil's Lula Backslides on Drug Reform, Grants Military Continued Control Over Anti-Drug Agency | This Week in History | Newsbrief: Mozambique, Swazi Farmers Find Dagga Crop Lucrative, But Have to Adjust to Market Trends | Newsbrief: Brazil Bans Viagra Ads | Newsbrief: British Young People Using More Hard Drugs, Health Department Says | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Another Pain Doctor Charged With Murder | Newsbrief: Florida Ex-Cons to Get Voting Rights | Mini Briefs: Illinois Syringe Deregulation, James Geddes Released | Web Scan: OPN, HRC, Cultural Baggage, Salon.com | The Reformer's Calendar

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