America wavers on get-tough drug sentences

America's war on drugs is facing a new front line - and it's not in Colombia or Mexico. It's here at home, in the hearts and minds of an increasing number of Americans who think the "war" has gone horribly wrong.

Across the cultural landscape, there are signs that Americans are beginning to rethink the stiff drug-sentencing laws that have placed hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders behind bars.

The evidence is found in voting booths, in Hollywood, and in a growing number of living rooms across the US. The debate is fueled by, among other things, movies such as Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," now in theaters, which disseminates a stinging indictment of the drug war. Or by the real-life case of actor Robert Downey Jr., a struggling addict whose rearrest on drug charges - despite having already served jail time - seems to have elicited as much sympathy as outrage.

On the political front, voters last month approved five of seven drug-reform initiatives, including California's Proposition 36, which requires treatment instead of jail for nonviolent offenders.

While there's danger of overstating the change of heart, a deeper national conversation does seem to be under way in households, churches, and newspaper columns. Criticisms include charges that the war on drugs is inefficient, unfairly administered, and has not curbed the nation's appetite for drugs.

The empathy factor

Experts say the changes in attitudes are driven by a variety of causes, ranging from impatience over the amount of money spent locking up nonviolent offenders (while not getting them off drugs), to the coming of age of baby boomers, who are said to be more empathetic toward drug abusers, possibly because a greater share of them either have used drugs themselves or known someone who has.

"This all comes out of a cultural context where [drug use] has become more familiar, and where the demonizing rhetoric around it doesn't really work for us," says the Rev. Scott Richardson, who has delivered sermons about the unfairness of the war on drugs at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif.

"People can look at someone like Robert Downey Jr. and realize that this has more to do with an illness than it has to do with crime," he says. "There is compassion for him."

The Rev. Mr. Richardson and other social observers say part of that compassion stems from the fact that 12-step programs - with their view of addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal one - have become a familiar part of American life, along with therapy and psychology.

"The language of therapy and 12-step programs has become part of our popular vernacular," says Jill Stein, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles. "We didn't use to talk this way about ourselves," she adds, characterizing the recovery movement as one of the most important social movements of the 20th century.

Treatment vs. jail

Advocates of drug-policy reform say reform doesn't mean excusing drug addiction. More treatment programs, which help addicts face and address the causes of their problem, are a fundamental necessity, they say.

"It does people no good to be too tolerant of things that are going to ruin their lives," says Morris Dickstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Humanities at the City University of New York. "Being too understanding, not drawing any lines, doesn't do people any good."

According to drug-reform advocates, studies that found treatment programs are more effective and cheaper than prison have helped to shift public attitudes. Of course, the debate over treatment vs. jail is a longstanding one. If nothing else, the case of Robert Downey Jr. - who has experience with both approaches - illustrates why it is so difficult for the public to commit permanently to one or the other.

Society today may also be less shocked by illegal drug use than it was 30 years ago, when drugs emerged as part of the countercultural revolution of the 1960s. In fact, the Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation reports that 50 percent of Americans ages 20 to 50 admit to having broken drug laws at least once.

Among those arguing for drug-policy reform are civil rights activists, who say current laws are administered unfairly. Users of crack cocaine - who tend to come from poor, often minority, communities - are 100 times more likely to be punished than users of powder cocaine, who tend to be more middle-class, they say.

Others say mandatory drug sentences make no sense in crowded prisons: Overcrowding often leads to early release of prisoners, which sometimes means that violent offenders, under no mandatory rules, are more easily released than nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences cannot be changed.

While reform advocates run the gamut - from Milton Friedman to Walter Cronkite to Jesse Jackson - reform is not popular in law-enforcement circles or among politicians, with a few exceptions. In California, Gov. Gray Davis and almost every district attorney in the state opposed Prop. 36, despite public support for it.

In the end, say activists, the public's changing views must find organized expression before any real shift in drug policy can occur. "We need pressure groups, community groups out there involved with drug treatment," says political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson. "We have to apply resources to this, because that is the way to curtail drug use."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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