11/2/08

Losing Battles

The War on Drugs is not only ineffective, it's a disaster. The New York Times reports:
The United Nations estimates that Bolivia’s coca crop increased by 5 percent in 2007 — far below the 27 percent jump recorded in Colombia, a close ally of the United States.
(Read the full article, wherein Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, accuses the DEA of espionage, here.)

Meanwhile, the United Sates consumes more illegal drugs than any other country in the world. Even Walter Cronkite has a become a vocal opponent.

The question is: what do we do now? This coming Tuesday in California, voters will have a chance to pass a proposition that seeks to repair some of the injustices. If passed, Proposition 5 will send many users to rehab rather than jail, reduce parole times and change some marijuana misdemeanors to infractions. It is vigorously supported by the LA Weekly and vigorously opposed by the Los Angeles Times. Even the New York Times has covered the story.

Critics claim it will cost over 1 billion dollars a year; advocates claim it will save over 1 billion dollars a year plus an initial 2.5 billion dollars by negating the need to build new prisons. This gets to the crux of the problem. To quote a New York Times' editorial:
According to a new federally backed study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, the state’s corrections costs have grown by about 50 percent in less than a decade and now account for about 10 percent of state spending — nearly the same amount as higher education... The solution for California is to shrink its vastly overcrowded prison system. To do so, it would need to move away from mandatory sentencing laws that have proved to be disastrous across the country.
Make no mistake, proposition 5 is messy. It creates a new, potentially unwieldy bureaucracy to oversee these drug cases and many judges claim it could jam the courts. Even so, it's a fact that the Unites States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We must choose to draw the line somewhere and tactically withdrawing from the War on Drugs seems like a good place to start.

On another note, Proposition 5 represents the best and the worst that ballot initiatives' peculiar brand of direct democracy has to offer. On the one hand, it is a serious piece of policy (it's 36 pages long and makes detailed changes to a significant number of laws and policies) that lawmakers, afraid of voters' bloodlust for anyone deemed to be "soft on crime," might feel unable to pen, let alone support. On the other hand, aren't 36 page-long pieces of policy exactly why we have representative democracy? Ballot initiatives allow Sacramento to sit idly by while voters make tough decisions, with or without the best available information.

My proposition: get propositions off the ballot. Direct democracy, at least in this hybrid form, ain't all it's cracked up to be.

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