Arizona Begins Revolt Against Drug War


With a reluctant stroke of the pen, Arizona Gov. Fife Symington has started a process that allows doctors to prescribe Schedule 1 drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, and requires only probation for first-time drug-abuse offenders.

Symington said he had no choice. On Nov. 5, voters in the state overwhelmingly approved the Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act, a.k.a. Proposition 200, which also may result in the early release of 975 state prisoners doing time for drug possession.

In what is regarded as one of the most conservative law-and-order states in the nation, Prop. 200 has reformed drug policy by shifting the emphasis from law enforcement to treatment and prevention.

No more “do drugs, do time” programs. No more “zero tolerance.” No more holding jail time over the heads of offenders who balk at orders to attend rehabilitation classes.

Although more attention has been paid to California’s approval of a law allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the Arizona measure has more far-reaching implications for the nation’s drug enforcement edifice.


Nationally, Arizona’s law, according to its sponsors, has sent a message: Time is up for America’s prison-oriented drug policy.

“This could be the crack in the Berlin Wall,” exulted Phoenix surgeon Jeffrey Singer, who campaigned for the law. “Five years from now, people will see Arizona is not suffering from mass addictions and, perhaps, even having rational discussions about decriminalization of all drugs--that’s what both drug lords and drug warriors fear most.”

Phoenix marijuana dealer Peter Wilson agreed.

“As with the fall of Communism,” Wilson said, “the drug wars will be over in a few years and America will be safer for it.”

Not so fast.

Although some conservatives, including former Sen. Barry Goldwater, support the reforms, others are plotting to gut the law when the state legislature meets next month.

“Proposition 200 is a thinly veiled attempt to legalize drugs at the expense of public safety,” Symington said before recently signing the measure into law. “I decided not to exercise the governor’s veto authority because there are other avenues available through the Legislature and the courts to address the threats it poses.”

“I wish he [Symington] would have vetoed it,” complained outgoing state House Majority Leader J. Ernie Baird. “While legislators are interested in making changes, right now they have no idea what those changes might be.

“But something has to be done,” Baird added. “If we legalize drugs, it will be the end of society as we know it.”

In the meantime, authorities, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio--the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” and a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent--are in the uncomfortable position of having to enforce a law they vehemently oppose.

“I still believe drug peddlers should be put away as long as possible,” Arpaio said. “Believe me, I’ll find a way to lock them up--a way around it. But we have to see how it all shakes out first.”

Despite the 2-1 margin by which the law was approved, critics, such as Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), continue to insist that Arizona voters were “duped” by expensive and misleading advertising. Voters, they say, did not understand the ramifications of the measure.

Phoenix banker Pauline Blank doesn’t appreciate that kind of talk. “I knew exactly what I was voting for,” she said. “The current laws are too restrictive. I have a friend who spent 2 1/2 years in prison on a marijuana charge, which is ridiculous. . . . “Mind you, I’ve never smoked marijuana in my life. But that’s my choice.”

Maricopa County probation officer Pat Healy put it another way.

“They are wasting time and money on the drug wars,” Healy said. “Right now, they are not catching the big shots, and little people are going to jail.”

Those sentiments are no surprise to the law’s creators, about two dozen influential people in Arizona’s political and private sectors. Before these doctors, lawyers, educators, clergy members, judges and politicians crafted the law’s language, extensive polls and focus groups had arrived at the same conclusion: The emphasis on incarcerating drug users isn’t working.

Although none of the respondents wanted to legalize drugs, the majority said they would endorse a strategy that would place users in treatment instead of prison.

Under the law, illegal drugs now can be prescribed for the treatment of certain illnesses and to relieve pain--but only if two doctors agree on the approach and provide corroborative scientific research.

It remains unclear whether a doctor’s federal license to dispense drugs could be yanked for prescribing marijuana or other Schedule 1 drugs to a patient. However, backers of the law point out that any such prescription would only serve as a defense for the drug possessor, not protection from arrest or prosecution.

In addition, patients in Arizona, as in California, would have to get these prescriptions “filled” on the street. Schedule 1 drugs are the most strictly controlled substances and include opiates, hallucinogens, depressants and stimulants, such as methamphetamine.

The law also establishes a new system of dealing with drug convictions. First-time offenders get probation and mandatory treatment. A second conviction also brings probation and treatment, and a possible short jail sentence. A third conviction could result in a mandatory prison sentence.

Moreover, anyone convicted of committing a violent crime while under the influence of illicit drugs must serve his or her entire sentence without the possibility of parole.

Of particular concern to opponents is a provision under which people now in Arizona prisons for drug possession can be paroled subject to the approval of the state clemency board.

Procurement, use and dispensing of Schedule 1 drugs remain federal crimes. But officials, including national drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey, have yet to come up with a concrete plan to deal with the laws in Arizona and California, which together cover 10% of the nation’s population.

Still, “the electorate knew damn well what they were voting for,” said supporter John Norton, who serves on the executive committee of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank dedicated to personal freedom, individual responsibility and limited government.

“The only way to conquer the drug problem is by persuading people that it is against their own self-interests to use drugs,” he said. “You will never get them to do that with a sledgehammer.”

Norton is not the only influential Arizonan who feels that way.

Phoenix attorney Marvin Cohen, former Secretary of State Dick Mahoney and John Sperling, president and chief executive officer of the Apollo Group--a Phoenix holding company for educational institutions, including the University of Phoenix--all contributed money and advice to the effort.

Sperling donated $480,000 to the campaign. Other financial backers include New York billionaire investor George Soros, who gave $430,000, and billionaire Ohio insurance-company owner Peter Lewis, who kicked in $330,000.

Goldwater was an honorary chairman of the Prop. 200 drive. Former Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who was a finalist to become national drug czar in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, was a key advisor to the committee.

Opponents were able to muster only about $5,100.

“We didn’t get our message out from a leadership standpoint,” conceded Maricopa County Atty. Richard Romley, who opposes the law that he fears may become a model for other states. “That’s too bad, because this is one of the worst laws ever--it’s a disaster.

“I ask America to sit in my chair for a bit,” Romley said, “and see how many children are abused and how much domestic violence occurs because of people under the influence of drugs.”

But “scaring kids with prison hasn’t stopped drug use from going up 1,000% over the past four years in Arizona’s elementary schools,” said Sam Vagenas, campaign coordinator of Arizonans for Drug Policy Reform. “Hopefully we can begin investing in our children instead of our prisons.”