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September 2, 2008 -- Sacramento Bee (CA)

Props. 5 And 8 Will Make Waves Nationally

By Peter Schrag

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Although hardly anyone's noticed, billionaire financier George Soros and some other very deep pockets are back on the California ballot with a drug and criminal sentencing reform measure that makes their prior efforts seem modest.

Given the prison mess we've locked ourselves into, Soros' proposal may be the brightest light on a bleak horizon.

This one, Proposition 5, called NORA, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, is a monster plan designed to direct many more drugusing lawbreakers to treatment and keep them out of the slammer. It puts more money into diversion and rehabilitation for both adults and youthful offenders, for whom there is now no drug treatment program at all.

It's a complicated and costly plan, running to an estimated $1 billion a year. It would allocate more resources to treatment, probation and parole. But the Legislative Analyst's Office believes it could save the state as much money, especially in prison construction, as it will cost, and maybe more.

The numbers are a little iffy. Nonetheless, the LAO says the program could reduce the state's adult inmate population, now roughly 171,000 prisoners, by 18,000 at $46,000 per year apiece, that's not peanuts and reduce the rolls of parolees by an additional 22,000.

NORA is part of what's become a long procession of drug reform and criminal sentencing reforms underwritten by Soros, John Sperling, the founder of the private for-profit University of Phoenix, and a group of other rich liberals.

They funded California's Proposition 215 in 1996 and a string of similar measures in other states legalizing the medical use of marijuana, as well as a variety of other drug "harm reduction" laws. Among them was California's Proposition 36 to divert drug using offenders to treatment instead of prison.

Proposition 5 expands on that idea, creates "rehabilitation wardens" in the prison system and makes possession of small amounts of marijuana an infraction, not a misdemeanor. All those changes are part of a larger strategy by Soros and his co-sponsors to radically reform U.S. drug-control policy, with its vast establishment of narcs and other drug cops, by shifting from a criminal model to a medical model, as much of Europe has done.

Proposition 5 has strong opposition from the leaders of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which, in the words of one of its California members, Jeffrey Thoma, the public defender of Solano County, is based "on misunderstanding and misinformation" and was adopted "using heavy-handed tactics."

Conversely, Proposition 5 has the endorsement of a long list of California individuals and groups, from the League of Women Voters and organizations representing physicians and drug and alcohol abuse counselors to labor unions, the former warden of San Quentin Prison and former director of the state Department of Corrections to conservative libertarians like former Secretary of State George Shultz.

If Proposition 5 passes, it could ring bells in the new Congress, elected on the same day, that Americans are ready for a new drug strategy. Congress, in its fear of being tarred as soft on drugs, has so far ignored all the other ballot measures.

But given the general fatigue of right-wing ideology, the messages might be heard this time. A growing number of Americans are beginning to understand that the countless billions we're spending on tracking down and incarcerating users, the additional billions in overseas interdiction and eradication, and the human and property cost of the crimes addicts commit to sustain their habit may not be worth the price.

In the same liberalizing context, the outcome of another November initiative, also with a lot of out-of-state support, could send an even louder message. That's the defeat of Proposition 8, the initiative that would overturn the state Supreme Court's decision that struck down California's prior laws prohibiting same-sex marriage.

Eight years ago, Californians, in approving Proposition 22, passed one of those laws with 62 percent of the votes. Last week's poll from PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California, showed that support for Proposition 8 was now at 40 percent, with 54 percent opposing it.

With nine weeks before Election Day, that's not an absolutely certain indicator of defeat, but since almost nothing with less than a strong poll majority in September is approved in November, you'd be a fool to bet on its passage.

The defeat of the gay marriage ban will be dismissed in some places as just another example of California's hopeless left-coast extremism, but if you look at the nation's drift in the past seven or eight years on George W. Bush, on the war on Iraq, on global warming and energy efficiency it's clear that California wasn't so much out of it as ahead of it.

Ditto for our demographics. In 30-some years, according to the census, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority, just as they are in California now. It's not always obvious that the nation goes as California goes, but that's mostly because it's slow getting there.

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