Americans made history on Nov. 5, 1996, by voting to pass two state ballot initiatives legalizing the medical use of marijuana. Those votes constituted the first major reassessment of the war on drugs since the repeal of Prohibition more than 60 years ago.
Given the recent reports about rising marijuana use, and the concerted efforts to defeat the California and Arizona initiatives, how can it be that millions of citizens in each state approved these medicalization initiatives? The answer is simple: Americans want common-sense drug policy reform, just as they want common-sense welfare reform. Whether they call themselves New Democrats, Centrist Republicans or Militant Moderates, the American people want to get past ideology and posturing and get down to work.
To be sure, the voters, particularly those in California, approved something quite narrow. By exempting patients and caregivers who possess or cultivate marijuana from criminal drug laws, voters approved leaving decisions about medication to doctors and patients - not to distant government officials or the criminal justice system. They voted for compassion for cancer and AIDS patients and others suffering from the ravages of prolonged illness and pain.
But what's most important to note here is that half of those who supported the California initiative stated they did not support decriminalizing drugs. Clearly, these discerning voters looked at the general issue of drug reform and were able to make distinctions between policies they felt would help solve a problem and those that they believed would harm the public.
While passage of the California and Arizona initiatives was the first major breakthrough in drug policy reform, this is not the first time that citizens have expressed major doubts about our current drug policy. In 1994, for example, a Baltimore judge convened a grand jury to look at the problem of drugs in the city.
The group was made up of 24 citizens, whose lives as ordinary people had been affected by the plague of substance abuse. These people came to the conclusion that what we're doing is not working and that we should look at decriminalization or a medical model, in which health professionals, not policemen, would lead the war on drugs.
I've argued for almost a decade that our drug policies have failed miserably and that doing more of the same won't lead to winning the war. I also believe that the current war against drugs - like the old welfare system - has often inflicted the most damage to those it is designed to protect.
Drug-related violence continues to escalate, tearing apart the social fabric of our urban communities. In Baltimore, 85 percent of the felonies committed in the city are drug-related, including violent crimes resulting from drug turf wars.
The spread of AIDS, particularly in the African-American community, is also skyrocketing. AIDS is now the No. 1 killer of young adult men and women in Baltimore, and at least 65 percent of new AIDS cases are drug users.
For these reasons, I continue to argue that a medicalization approach to drug policy is the more rational - and humane - direction we should take. It recognizes that drug addiction is a disease and therefore must be treated primarily as a public health problem, not a law enforcement problem.
This approach would also place far heavier emphasis on prevention and treatment strategies than is the case with the current system. But more important than any one strategy or approach is the crucial need to open up a national dialogue that admits defeat under the current drug policy system and demands thoughtful alternatives.
Before the results came in from California and Arizona, many believed that the general public was unable to think or act rationally on the drug issue and wasn't ready to undertake this major reassessment of the war on drugs.
But by voting overwhelmingly to change drug policy in one particular area, these voters may be suggesting otherwise. They were certainly subjected to the highly charged political rhetoric about drug abuse that swirled around the presidential campaign. And they were warned by prominent federal officials that the ballot initiatives sent "extremely harmful" mixed signals.
But this time, they didn't go for the bait. The voters may well be ahead of their leaders on this issue, and there are a number of reasons for this new boldness.
First, people continue to see the failure of the current drug policies in the crime and violence of their own communities. They've also heard our leaders calling for a break with the ideological and divisive politics of the past. And perhaps most importantly, they're watching a bipartisan consensus developing around a number of difficult and complicated issues, such as welfare.
Leaders have been able to make dramatic changes in the traditional welfare system based on the accumulated evidence that the system wasn't working and needed to be fixed. In this instance, conventional wisdom was clearly being challenged.
Why, people are beginning to ask, isn't drug policy reform being held up to similar scrutiny? Why aren't its policies being re-examined in the light of more rational and innovative thinking?
A number of alternative strategies to the current system - aimed at prevention and treatment - offer further impetus to engage in this national dialogue.
For example, pilot needle-exchange programs in cities like Baltimore and New Haven have helped reduce the spread of AIDS. Baltimore has also turned a number of its mail boxes into clearly marked "drops" for dirty needles - and already we've seen that more than 10 percent of the discarded needles test positive for HIV.
In addition, Baltimore is experimenting with acupuncture at a number of its drug treatment centers, to see if that approach could be an effective alternative in treating drug addicts.
Increased public support for such alternatives indicates again that Americans are ready to sit down and rethink drug policy in a common-sense fashion. The voters of California and Arizona deserve our thanks and our respect for sending that message in November. But they are not alone.
Many independent thinkers, ranging from former Secretary of State George P. Shultz to conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr., have taken a serious look at our drug policy and called for dramatically different approaches. Increasingly, ordinary citizens are doing the same.
Beginning with our founding fathers, we have known that the free flow of ideas and the open debate of policies form the foundation of our democracy and are the secret of most of its successes.
Those of us who are committed to finding new ways of reducing the terrible toll drugs exact from our communities look forward to a serious, honest and respectful discussion in the months ahead. There are few more urgent issues facing the American people - and few more in need of a rational debate - than America's drug policy.
And thanks to the voters in California and Arizona, there's mounting evidence that people are ready - and in fact eager - for the debate to begin.
Kurt L. Schmoke is Baltimore's mayor and a leading critic of the so-called war on drugs.
Pub Date: 12/08/96