The War on the War on Drugs

Multimillionaires tab Ohio to stage the next people's rebellion.

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Three rich men -- not a band of pot fiends -- are fueling the drug treatment - initiative. - Walter  Novak
Three rich men -- not a band of pot fiends -- are fueling the drug treatment initiative.
Ohio is laaaaid back. Or so says a poll conducted by a drug-policy reform group.

A few months ago, the California-based Campaign for New Drug Policies asked Ohioans how they felt about mandating treatment, rather than prison time, for first- and second-time drug offenders. Proposition 36, a measure to that effect, was approved by California voters last year.

Here's the strange part: At this moment, support for the idea is stronger in Ohio than it was before the election in California, where Proposition 36 eventually passed with 61 percent of the vote.

Campaign spokesman Dave Fratello refuses to believe that Ohio is more liberal than California, so there must be another explanation: The country has come to its senses, he argues. Fratello thinks frustration with America's drug war has reached critical mass, citing as evidence Proposition 36's easy victory and the film Traffic's $120 million box-office gross.

But a Hollywood hit does not a policy change make. Moreover, few would be willing to bet that politicians -- a species not known for courage -- will reexamine the hardening of drug statutes any time soon, whether they believe it wise or not. So the campaign is asking the people to take charge. In November 2002, Ohioans should be able to vote for a constitutional amendment modeled after Proposition 36. "We work through the initiative process, because the mainstream political system hasn't gone far enough and hasn't responded to voters," Fratello says.

It must be noted that Fratello doesn't represent a misfit band of hash enthusiasts and ex-cons. The campaign is bankrolled by three very rich men -- financier George Soros, entrepreneur John Sperling, and Progressive Corporation Chairman Peter B. Lewis -- who are convinced the drug war is folly (and, at least in Lewis's case, enjoy the occasional bong hit). Since 1996, the trio has spent more than $10 million on several successful ballot initiatives in western states. Typically, the focus has been narrow, such as the medicinal use of marijuana or law enforcement's ability to seize suspects' money and property. Proposition 36, however, will shake the foundation of California's enormous prison system. As many as 36,000 offenders a year will receive treatment instead of prison time.

The campaign is now taking its act from the Granola Belt to highly populated swing states -- Ohio, Florida, and perhaps Michigan. We're prized, apparently, for our blandness. Says Fratello: "If you pass it in Ohio, it wakes a lot of people up, and they say, Gosh, if you can do it here and in California and in Florida and maybe even Michigan, that really says this is practically universal across America, that voters are already there. You don't have to take baby steps in this direction. If you're a politician, you can grow a backbone if you believe in this kind of thing -- and many politicians do, but feel they can't get out ahead of it."

In short: Where there's not a will, there's still a way.

But the initiative process isn't as purely populist as it might seem. Opponents say it invites special-interest propaganda at its most insidious. In 1994, for instance, the soft-drink industry spent $8 million convincing Ohio voters to repeal a penny-a-can pop tax, which they did. Just as in conventional campaigns, money is omnipotent. Were it not for the impressive wallets of Lewis & Co., the drug initiative would never get beyond debate in a stoner's living room.

Yet proponents see initiatives as a means for citizens to push past legislative bodies too stupid or corrupt to do the right thing. Count state Senator Eric Fingerhut (D-Cleveland) among the true believers. He points to issues like Ohio's concealed-weapons law, which he's hoping to convert into a constitutional amendment. Polls show most Ohioans oppose making it easier to pack heat. Still, the legislature seems determined to liberalize the statute. Lawmakers, Fingerhut believes, can't hear the voice of the people over the threats of lobbyists. "If the public can vote on this even once, it would change the landscape of gun safety," he says.

Amending the state constitution via initiative isn't easy, however. Petitioners must collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the electorate in the last governor's race. That's more than 335,000 autographs. The likely cost of such democracy? The Campaign for New Drug Policies, which hires professionals to lead petition drives, can expect to pay between $500,000 and $1 million just to get on the ballot.

The amendment would appropriate $38 million annually for drug treatment. But that's still cheaper than sending offenders directly to the slam. Since drug abuse/possession is the most serious offense committed by 20 percent of new inmates, Fratello estimates a net gain of $60 million a year.

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, says the amendment is restrictive and redundant, since courts already have the discretion to sentence lower-level drug offenders to treatment. "It seems to me a big waste of effort that ties the judges' hands," he says. "We ought to let the judges be judges."

Murphy speculates the campaign's ultimate goal is drug legalization. If so, one would expect John Hartman, the president of North Coast NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) to be on board. Actually, he's ambivalent. Hartman doesn't want to see Ohio's existing marijuana laws, which are relatively liberal, toughened in the process. "I'd hate that everyone who got caught with a joint would have to go to treatment."

Fratello assured Hartman marijuana users wouldn't be stung, since the offender is the one who requests treatment. Some pot smokers might prefer to pay the $100 fine, give up their driver's license for a year, and go home. Besides, it's not the freaks that amendment seekers need to win over. "I don't think you're going to see that this is an outsider-type campaign," Fratello says. "I think this is going to develop as a pretty mainstream coalition in Ohio."

It already has. Last week, state Senator Robert Hagan (D-Youngstown) introduced legislation modeled after the initiative.

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