A Hard Choice Between Taxpayer-Funded Drug Treatment and Decriminalization


On Friday I received a press release from the Drug Policy Alliance (apparently not available online) with the headline "Drug Decriminalization Could Begin in California July 1." Good news, right? Wrong:

Beginning July 1, Californians convicted of using heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or marijuana may simply be sent home. The Drug Policy Alliance warned today that drug treatment providers in the state are running out of money and that failing to allocate funding will decriminalize drug use.

In 2000, California voters passed Prop. 36, the state's treatment-instead-of-incarceration law, permanently changing state law so that all eligible nonviolent drug possession offenders must be given the option of treatment. Eligible offenders cannot be jailed unless they are given treatment first.

Daniel Abrahamson, Drug Policy Alliance's Director of Legal Affairs, said, "Prop. 36 clearly prohibits the incarceration of most low-level nonviolent drug offenders. This doesn't change if the state decides to zero out funding for treatment. We drafted Prop. 36 this way to force the state to commit sufficient treatment resources."

Abrahamson continued, "If the state fails to invest in Prop. 36 treatment, at least California won't have to waste money jailing nonviolent drug offenders. We have de facto decriminalization of drug use."

With drug treatment funding set to run out on July 1—and with it, the option to send people to drug treatment—the state is under the gun. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed $120 million for Prop. 36—a figure widely agreed to be much too low—and legislators recently set a slightly higher figure.

But in Sacramento now, there are two threats to Prop. 36 funding: some legislators may refuse to vote for Prop. 36 money without certain changes to the citizen initiative, or the governor might strike out the money if he is not satisfied with policy changes approved by the legislature.

I've always had mixed feelings about laws that mandate "treatment" rather than jail for certain categories of drug offenders. On the one hand, most people arrested for drug possession presumably would prefer treatment, no matter how coercive, unnecessary, or bogus. On the other hand, putting aside complaints about using taxpayers' money for this purpose (it's also used to lock up drug offenders, after all), mandatory treatment reinforces the idea that using politically disfavored intoxicants is a disease; it requires a highly invasive form of re-education; and it disguises punishment as therapy, which in turn reduces public discomfort with the war on drugs. But here we have the Drug Policy Alliance—whose executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, rarely misses an opportunity to say that people should never be punished merely for the chemicals they choose to introduce into their own bodies—playing to irrational fears of drug users by warning the public that a cut in government funding for treatment might lead to decriminalization. If so, all I can say is, "Go, Arnold!"