Wednesday, October 22, 2008

US drug policy ballot initiatives on November 4th

There's a lot more at stake on November the 4th than just the presidential vote, including some potentially seismic changes in US drug policy if key ballot initiatives are passed on that day. Many people outside the US are unaware that alongside the presidential decision, US voters will be voting on local representatives for the Senate and Congress and potentially a raft of local ballot initiatives.

The concept of the ballot initiative - whereby state level changes (in 24 US States) in policy and law can be decided by vote (if a requisite number of signatures are initially gathered in support of the measure) - is actually based on a Swiss model, but does not exist in the UK. The most notable US drug policy successes up until now have been on (for the UK anyway) the marginal issue of medical cannabis. Proposition 5 on the Californian ballot this year is far more significant, including a range of measures to divert non violent drug offenders away from incarceration and towards treatment and rehabilitation - with the aim of saving tax payers money, helping those with drug problems, increasing funding for treatment services generally, and reducing the prison population. Part of the package is a measure to reduce penalties for cannabis possession to civil offense status - punishable with a spot fine, similar to a traffic violation (along the lines already adopted by 11 US states).

Heavy opposition is now arriving from the prisons industry, the drinks industry, the casinos industry, and the Drug Czar. So you instinctively know the DPA must be doing something right. Here, incidentally, is who supports it.

Below is a letter to the drug law reform community from Ethan Nadlemann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance responsible for organising the initiative, detailing recent developments and encouraging drug law reform supporters to get involved.

You can find out more, including the full text of the proposition, background information, and news and at

prop 5 leaflet - click to view

Dear Fellow Reformers,

I've never invested as much in anything as I have in Proposition 5, our ballot initiative in California. If we win on Election Day, this will be the biggest reform of prisons and sentencing in U.S. history - and the biggest reform of drug policy - since the repeal of alcohol Prohibition seventy-five years ago.

But we both know you can't make a change this big without stirring up intense opposition from vested interests. Last week the powerful prison guards union contributed $1 million to the opposition campaign. That's on top of hundreds of thousands of dollars from Indian tribes/casinos with close links to law enforcement as well as $100,000 from the California Beer and Beverage Distributors.

And I just found out that today the Bush administration's drug czar is in Sacramento to announce his opposition to Proposition 5.

If we win, the new law will effectively transfer $1 billion annually from prison and parole to treatment and rehabilitation - and save taxpayers $2.5 billion because new prisons will not need to be built. The result will be fewer drug and other nonviolent offenders behind bars, and also reductions in crime and recidivism. The initiative even includes a sensible provision to reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana to the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

This initiative, unlike most, was drafted with keen attention to decades of empirical research on what works best in reducing incarceration, crime and recidivism and enabling people with drug problems to get their lives together.

I am not instinctively a fan of the ballot initiative process. But it seems to me that the process is ideally used when the legislature and/or the governor are unable or unwilling to enact worthy legislation, which is favored by a substantial majority of the public, and which advances the interests of those people who are most disempowered in the legislative process. That is clearly the case here.

We have a lot riding on this initiative - not just for DPA but also for the hundreds of thousands of people who will either sit in prison or get a second chance, depending on whether or not Prop 5 wins on Election Day.

Our opponents think they can defeat Prop 5 by resorting to the same old scare tactics that filled the prisons in the first place. But we know we'll win if voters focus on the bottom line, which is that Prop 5 will reduce prison overcrowding, reduce crime and recidivism, directly help huge numbers of people, and save taxpayers billions of dollars.

Please tell everyone you know in California to vote for Prop 5. We MUST win Prop 5.

Many, many thanks.

Very truly yours,


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