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The Drug War Goes Up in Smoke | The Nation

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The Drug War Goes Up in Smoke

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Johnson concluded that policies such as distributing clean needles to addicts and opening up regulated heroin-maintenance programs would do more to manage addiction than simply sending the police out to round up addicts; he also concluded that legalizing some categories of drugs and carefully regulating their sale would remove a huge pool of money from organized-crime cartels, boost government tax revenues and free up large amounts of money to be invested in drug education and health centers.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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Retired Judge Woody Smith, who served on the bench in Albuquerque in the 1980s and '90s before joining a Johnson task force on drug law reform, says, "He believes our approach [to the war on drugs] was wrong, from a personal liberty standpoint and a pragmatic standpoint." Smith, too, was eventually persuaded that the country's approach to drugs needs to be drastically overhauled. "Legalization and regulation are the only answer," he says now. "It's not a perfect solution, but it's a hell of a lot better than what we're doing now."

This evolution of thinking in New Mexico has spread across the country in recent years. Increasingly impatient with the costly combination of policing and prosecution, voters, along with a growing number of state and local elected officials, have abandoned their support for incarceration-based antidrug strategies and have forced significant policy shifts. From conservative states like Louisiana to traditionally progressive states like Michigan, from small states like New Mexico and Kansas to large states like California, all the big questions are up for debate: Should marijuana be decriminalized, at least for those with pressing medical needs? Should mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders be abandoned? Should prison terms for crimes of addiction be replaced by mandated treatment? Should governments fund needle exchanges and other harm-reduction programs for drug users as a way of controlling epidemics? Increasingly, at the local level, the answers are yes, yes, yes and yes.

In 1996 voters in Arizona passed Proposition 200, transferring thousands of drug offenders into treatment programs. In California, a similar initiative passed in 2000, Proposition 36, channeled tens of thousands of addicts into treatment--and reduced the number of inmates imprisoned on drug-possession charges from almost 20,000 at the time of the law's passage to just over 15,000 in June 2002.

In 1998 Michigan repealed its notorious "650-lifer" laws, which decreed a mandatory life sentence for those caught in possession of more than 650 grams of certain narcotics. Then, last Christmas, Governor John Engler signed legislation rolling back the state's tough mandatory-minimum drug sentences and its equally tough "lifetime probation," which had been imposed on many drug offenders following their release from prison.

Early this year North Dakota repealed its one-year mandatory-minimum sentence for those convicted on a first-time drug-possession charge, as did Connecticut in 2001. Indiana and Louisiana have repealed some of their statutory sentences, and Louisiana has restored parole and probation options for inmates convicted of a host of nonviolent offenses.

In Kansas a sentencing commission has proposed major reforms of the state's mandatory sentencing codes coupled with an expansion of treatment provisions. Despite opposition from conservative legislators, these recommendations were accepted in late March. "It's definitely a change of philosophy regarding how you deal with drug offenders," says Barbara Tombs, executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission. "With the state budget cuts and [many] drug treatment programs in prisons being eliminated, there is an urgent need to look at alternatives to incarceration for drug prisoners."

At the same time, a clutch of states, including California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska and Nevada, have adopted medical marijuana legislation, legalizing the drug's use for specific medical conditions such as AIDS wasting, and a similar measure in Colorado was invalidated on a technicality.

Taken as a whole, these reforms represent the biggest change to state drug policies in more than a generation.

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