Kinder, gentler drug policy pays off

April 20, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - For some time, critics have been saying that the war hasn't been going well, has forced us to overextend ourselves and is gobbling up far too many tax dollars. But many of them were skeptical about this effort from the start. The surprise is that President Bush now seems to be moving their way on the war.

Not the war in Iraq - the war on drugs.

Early on, the Bush administration took a consistently hard line against recreational substances and those who use them - vigorously opposing state medical marijuana initiatives, objecting when Canada considered decriminalizing marijuana and accusing potheads of subsidizing terrorism. But lately, it has changed its tone.

In a House committee hearing in February, Bush drug czar John P. Walters stressed the need to focus on major drug traffickers instead of individual users. He lamented the consequences of "taking generation after generation of young men, especially poor, minority young men in our cities, and putting them in jail. And I think citizens rightly say, `Can't we stop this?'"

Republicans have not exactly gotten soft-hearted toward heroin addicts. But they have begun to grasp the conflict between fighting the same old drug war and getting control of federal spending.

Mr. Bush is coming to grips with something that many states have had to face in recent years: The drug war, as it has been fought up to now, costs too much and accomplishes too little. Several states, caught in a budget vise, have backed away from mass lockups in favor of kinder, gentler and cheaper options.

The biggest shift came in California in 2000, when voters approved Proposition 36, which mandated that nonviolent, low-level drug offenders get probation and treatment instead of incarceration.

Since then, up to 100,000 offenders have been diverted from prison, and the state's savings are estimated at $1.5 billion over five years.

"Proposition 36 is the single biggest piece of sentencing reform in the United States since the repeal of Prohibition," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Last year, Maryland embraced the same reform.

Between 1991 and 1996, Texas tripled the size of its prison system to make room for all the criminals it wanted to lock away. But two years ago, a state budget crisis forced the legislature to reconsider.

At that point, state Rep. Ray Allen, a conservative Republican and chairman of the House Corrections Committee, says he discovered that Texas prisons had some 4,000 inmates charged with minor drug felonies. Considering the state was spending $2 a day to supervise people on probation, compared with $40 a day to keep them in prison, he introduced a bill mandating probation and treatment for first-time offenders caught with small amounts of illicit substances.

"I thought we'd catch hell for it," he said in a phone interview the other day. But one former prosecutor in the House, also a Republican, said, "I've sent 1,000 people to prison for these types of offenses, and I don't feel too good about it." To Mr. Allen's surprise, the bill passed both houses without dissent and was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

"What broke the logjam," says Mr. Allen, "was when Republicans who had been tough on crime looked at the fiscal impact and saw that policies that felt good were fiscally unsustainable."

By diverting some drug offenders from prison, he says, Texas has saved $51 million, and the savings will grow.

When governments are awash in money, as many were in the 1990s, they don't have to choose between policies that are wasteful and those that are worth their cost. But those days are gone, which means the drug war's days may be numbered.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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